by Lilly Platts
published in Western Ag Reporter, September 24, 2020
“Made in the USA” is a label adorning many products sold in America — but it may not be as straightforward as it seems when read at face value. A recent push, particularly by beef producers, hopes to clarify that.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking related to the definitions of the labels “Made in the USA,” “Product of the USA,” and other unqualified U.S.-origin claims on product labels. USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) definition conflicts FTC’s definition, meaning if a change is made, products ranging from pharmaceuticals to beef could be affected.
FTC defines “Made in the USA” as a product for which “all significant processing that goes into the product occurs in the United States, and all or virtually all ingredients of the product are made and sourced in the United States.” The FSIS definition, on the other hand, states the designation defines where a product is processed, not its physical origin. What exactly constitutes ‘processing’ is a potential loophole in the definition and currently, repackaging could be considering processing.
The United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) sent a petition to FSIS earlier this year challenging the discrepancy, and in their response, FSIS said, “Product of the USA… has never been construed by FSIS to mean that the product is derived only from animals that were born, raised, slaughtered, and prepared in the United States. The only requirement for products bearing this labeling statement is that the product has been prepared (i.e., slaughtered, canned, salted, rendered, boned, etc.).”
Under this definition, the current beef labeling structure does not meet the FTC’s requirements, which in theory could require a revision to be made. The FTC opened a public comment period, which closed on September 14, and ranchers and livestock groups were encouraged to submit their comments.
R-CALF USA was a vocal advocate for submitting comments and offered thoughts of their own, adding that FSIS’ rule also conflicts the mandatory country of origin labeling (mCOOL) standards that still apply to some food commodities including lamb and chicken.
“The comments state that while USDA’s policy allows foreign lamb to bear a USA label when it too is subjected to only minimal processing, the mCOOL law expressly states that lamb cannot bear a United States designation unless it is from an animal that is exclusively born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States,” an R-CALF USA press release explained.
Ken Morris, a Montana rancher and member of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association Board of Directors, was disappointed that more producers were not made aware of the public comment period. However, Morris remains hopeful the comments submitted will be enough to incite change.
“Foreign beef can be repackaged, which is not right,” Morris said. “I am hoping the FTC can carry a lot of weight.”
Morris said the definition of a product ‘Made in the USA’ is especially important for beef producers due to the international nature of the U.S. beef industry.
“There are a lot of Mexican cattle coming across the border both live and slaughtered here,” he said. “Still, from our perspective, that is not a ‘Product of the USA.’ They [other countries] have entirely different health standards than we do.”
Protecting the value and future of U.S. beef is at the heart of many of the comments submitted to the FTC by ranchers, a number of which are from Montana. Maggie Nutter, President of the Marias Livestock Association (which represents producers from Glacier, Liberty, Pondera and Toole counties) submitted comments. Nutter pointed to cases of contamination, consumer illness, lack of transparency, and safety in other countries as critical reasons to clarify what can be labeled as a “Product of the USA.”
“Consumers deserve the right to have clear and transparent labeling when it comes to their food,” Nutter said. “United States beef cattle producers should have the exclusive right to the ‘Made in the USA’ or ‘Product of the USA’ label for their cattle born, raised, and harvested here in the USA.”
Nutter also underscored the idea that the corporate packers benefit from what could be deceptive labels.
“The removal of Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling Requirements for Beef and Pork Muscle Cuts, Ground Beef, and Ground Pork via the amendments in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, should not have become an avenue by which large meat packing corporations could then fraudulently label foreign meat as ‘Product of the USA’,” Nutter wrote.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) countered those sentiments. NCBA Senior Director of International Trade and Market Access Kent Bacus told WAR attempting to “repackage” mCOOL criteria as an FTC guideline for ‘Made in the USA’ claims “is not the solution that consumers or the cattle industry needs.”
“Instead of focusing on unsuccessful ideas of the past, we must enable producers to capitalize on consumer demand by strengthening voluntary labels that educate consumers and truly differentiate our products in the marketplace,” Bacus said. “Consumers want to buy local and they want to know more about how their food was raised. We believe America’s cattle producers are better equipped than the U.S. government to market our beef and tell our story to global consumers.”
Bacus reiterated that NCBA “firmly believes in transparent, voluntary, and verified labeling that educates consumers on the quality of our products while rewarding producers for effectively marketing our cattle based on consumer demand.” NCBA, without question, wants “America’s cattle industry to be strong and successful, just as we want consumers to be adequately informed,” Bacus assured. However, this approach is not the way to do that, according to Bacus.
The FTC will now compile and review the comments and make their case to clarify what will be considered “Made in the USA” or “Product of the USA” with the FSIS and USDA.