Made in the USA? Proposed rule clarifies grocery meat labels

Associated Press
Federal agriculture officials on Monday, March 6, 2023 released new requirements that would allow labels on meat, poultry or eggs to claim that phrase ‒ or “Product of USA” ‒ only if they come from animals “born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the United States.”

Shoppers could soon find it easier to tell if those grocery store steaks or pork chops were really “Made in the USA.”

Federal agriculture officials on Monday released new requirements that would allow labels on meat, poultry or eggs to use that phrase ‒ or “Product of USA” ‒ only if they come from animals “born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the United States.” That’s a sharp change from current policy, which allows voluntary use of such labels on products from animals that have been imported from a foreign country and slaughtered in the U.S., but also on meat that's been imported and repackaged or further processed.

Imports of beef from countries including Australia, Canada and Brazil, for instance, account for about 12% of the total consumed in the U.S. Overall, imports of red meat and poultry account for less than 6%, while imports of eggs account for less than half of 1%.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the proposed rule would better align the labels with consumers’ views. A survey commissioned by the USDA found that nearly two-thirds of shoppers believed that a “Product of USA” label meant that most or all meat production steps occurred in the U.S.

“There’s obviously a disconnect between what the consumers’ understandings and expectations are and what the label currently is,” Vilsack said in an interview.

About 12% of all meat, poultry and egg products sold in the country carry the U.S.-origin labels, USDA officials said.

The label change was first proposed by President Joe Biden in 2021 and was included last year in a series of steps to bolster the U.S. meat and poultry supply chain.

The USDA survey, conducted last summer, included a nationally representative sample of more than 4,800 American adults who do the grocery shopping for their families and who bought beef or pork in the previous six months. More than 40% of the shoppers said they look for the USA label when buying meat.

The rule was praised by consumer advocates and representatives for U.S. ranchers and farmers, including the U.S. Cattlemen's Association, which petitioned the USDA for the label change in 2019.

“The proposed rule finally closes this loophole by accurately defining what these voluntary origin claims mean,” said Justin Tupper, the group's president. "If it says ‘Made in the USA,’ then it should be from cattle that have only known USA soil. Consumers have the right to know where their food comes from, full stop.”

Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America, said the change is a “small but important step” that should have been made long ago.

Under the current rule, Gremillion noted, a cow can be raised in Mexico under that country's regulations for feed and medications, then shipped across the border and slaughtered that same day to make ground beef and steaks that qualify as “Product of USA.”

Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the trade group American Grassfed Association, said the existing rule also penalizes small domestic producers.

“It’s expensive to raise grass-raised animals from scratch,” Balkcom said. “And these large producers were importing these animals raised elsewhere and just repackaging them and then kind of coasting on the ‘Made in the USA’ label."

Trade retaliation, raised prices

The North American Meat Institute (Meat Institute) said the USDA's FSIS' latest attempt at proposed rules for a “Product of the USA” label for meat products are again likely to result in trade retaliation from Canada and Mexico costing American consumers and businesses billions of dollars.

“Unfortunately, this proposed rule is problematic for many reasons. USDA should have considered more than public sentiment on an issue that impacts international trade,” said Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts. “Our members make considerable investments to produce beef, pork, lamb, veal and poultry products in American facilities, employing hundreds of thousands of workers in the U.S. and with processes overseen by USDA inspectors. This food should be allowed to be labeled a ‘Product of the USA.’”

At issue is a rule proposed by FSIS that would limit claims so only products made from livestock born, raised, harvested, and processed in America could be labeled a “Product of the USA.”

Although the proposed label is voluntary, Potts says the overly prescriptive rule here would exclude many popular products made in America, by workers in America, and under inspection from the USDA. Those products include certain brands of popular American foods like hot dogs, sausage, bacon, ground beef, sliced ham and much, much more.

"The proposed voluntary “Product of the USA” label will have a discriminatory effect, causing meat packers and processors, who wish to make the claim, to segregate cattle, hogs, and meat from other nations," she said.

This rule uses the same standard as the mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) statute repealed by Congress in late 2015.

Another industry group, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), has called for eliminating the voluntary USA labels entirely and allowing for strict labeling standards verified by the USDA. However, NCBA Executive Director of Government Affairs Kent Bacus says the proposed rule falls short.

"There is no question that the current “Product of USA” label for beef is flawed, and it undercuts the ability of U.S. cattle producers to differentiate U.S. beef in the marketplace. Simply adding born, raised, and harvested requirements to an already broken label will fail to deliver additional value to cattle producers and it will undercut true voluntary, market-driven labels that benefit cattle producers. We cannot afford to replace one flawed government label with another flawed government label," he said.

The voluntary labeling rules are different from country-of-origin labels, known as COOL, which required companies to disclose where animals supplying beef and pork are born, raised and slaughtered. That requirement was rolled back in 2015, after international trade disputes and a ruling from the World Trade Organization.

Country-of-origin labels are still required for other foods, including fish, shellfish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and more.

Companies won’t have to prove that their products are American-made before using the labels, but they will have to file documentation. The proposal applies only to meat, poultry and eggs, products overseen by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which can pull the label if companies are found to violate the rule.

The label proposal is open for public comment before it becomes final.

Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer contributed to this article