- A new proposed rule from the USDA would limit “Product of USA” labels on meat, poultry and egg products to items derived from animals born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the United States.
- USDA said the new definition would end consumer confusion over where food comes from. Currently, any product processed in the United States — even from meat raised elsewhere and imported to the U.S. for processing and slaughter, or imported and repackaged in the United States — can be labeled “Product of USA.”
- This is one of several long-pending food labeling clarifications that has come out from the federal government in the last several months. This and other regulations are intended to increase consumer knowledge and information.
The loopholes in voluntary “Product of USA” labeling have long vexed those in the U.S. meat industry. This proposed rule could be the beginning of labeling becoming more airtight.
The proposed rule, which was published in the Federal Register this week, got its start after three different petitions asked the USDA to clarify the labeling. In June 2018, the Organization for Competitive Markets and the American Grassfed Association requested that the label be restricted to products that come from the United States. In October 2019, the United States Cattlemen’s Association made a similar request that applied only to beef products. And in June 2021, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association asked that the “Product of USA” label be eliminated, and that broader labels including “Processed in the USA” be added.
USDA used comments on all three of these petitions, as well as data from a consumer survey about understanding of the claim, to inform the proposed rule.
“American consumers expect that when they buy a meat product at the grocery store, the claims they see on the label mean what they say,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release about the proposed rule. “These proposed changes are intended to provide consumers with accurate information to make informed purchasing decisions.”
Meat producer organizations in the United States are glad to see the proposed rule.
“USCA is pleased to see that the proposed rule finally closes this loophole by accurately defining what these voluntary origin claims mean, something we have been working to clarify since the repeal of mandatory country-of-origin labeling in 2015,” United States Cattemen’s Association President Justin Tupper said in a written statement. “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.”
The American Grassfed Association said a “Product of USA” label that means something can help its members.
“Rules requiring born, raised, slaughtered, and processed to use Product of USA will provide domestic farmers and small processors huge opportunities to compete fairly in the grassfed and USDA procurement program,” Greg Gunthorp, a producer and AGA board member said in a written statement.
But several industry groups wished the proposed rule would go farther.
Lobbying group R-CALF USA — Ranchers-Cattlement Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America — said in a statement the reforms will be helpful, but without mandatory country of origin labeling for beef, it won’t completely fix the problem. Legislation that would institute this labeling — which is pending in the U.S. Senate — is the only way that the issue will be completely fixed, the group wrote.
The U.S. briefly instituted mandatory country of origin labeling in 2013. Complaints brought to the World Trade Organization from Canada and Mexico and $1 billion in retaliatory import tariffs from the WTO if the law remained on the books led Congress to repeal it in 2015.
NCBA Executive Director of Government Affairs Kent Bacus said in a statement that the group has been working on a solution for years. However, the “Product of USA” label is inherently flawed.
“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,” Bacus wrote. “We cannot afford to replace one flawed government label with another flawed government label.”
Canada’s top government officials dealing with the U.S. beef trade — Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, and Minister of International Trade for Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development Mary Ng — issued a statement that said their country will closely review the proposed rule and make comments about any aspect that may disrupt trade between the two nations.
"Canada will work with the U.S. to ensure that new definitions and rules allow farmers, processors and consumers in both countries to continue to benefit from efficient, stable and competitive markets," the officials said in the statement.
This rule is not yet final. Interested parties can comment on it for 60 days, after which USDA will draw up a final version of the rule.