Ag Policy Blog

FSIS Reassessing Product of USA Labels

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service acknowledged consumers could be confused about where their beef comes from under current volunteer "Product of USA" labels at retail stores. The agency is looking at ensuring such labels come from cattle slaughtered in the U.S., but some cattlemen's groups want to ensure the label applies only to beef from cattle born and raised in the U.S. as well. (DTN file photo)

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is reassessing how to define the way meat products are labeled under voluntary rules to use labels for U.S. origin such as "Product of USA" or "Made in USA."

In a pair of letters Thursday sent to separate livestock organizations, FSIS states that the current "Product of USA" labeling policy "may be causing confusion in the marketplace, particularly with respect to certain imported meat products." So, FSIS stated it was opening up a rulemaking process to reexamine how to label the origin of meat products. FSIS stated, "we intend to propose that such labeling be limited to meat products derived from livestock that were slaughtered and processed and in the United States."

The complexity of USDA rules over the origin of beef remains an extension of the battles fought over the past two decades over Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). Mandatory COOL went away in 2015 after Congress buckled to the threat of trade retaliation by Canada and Mexico over a World Trade Organization ruling. Dropping COOL made it easier for packers to use imported livestock and imported meat products. Packers, which were some of the biggest opponents of COOL, acknowledged in a court filing last year that U.S. cattle markets fell after Congress got rid of COOL.

The FSIS decision came after separate petitions from the U.S. Cattlemen's Association and the Organization for Competitive Markets, along with the American Grassfed Association.

USCA stated it was disappointed in FSIS's decision because the agency ignore the origin of live cattle in its rulemaking. USCA's petition sought to require any labels about the origin of "USA" products to come from cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.

“While FSIS has acknowledged the problem of current consumer confusion in the marketplace, it is clear now that Congress will need to step in to fix the current labeling problem,” USCA said. “USCA remains disappointed that an accurate and truthful origin definition was not achieved through Congress in 2015, however, efforts are underway to secure this needed language through legislation.

USCA noted FSIS "will effectively take producers out of the equation" but defining "origin" as the packing house or processing facility rather than the ranch. "The true origin of any beef product is with the producer, and USCA will continue to work with Congress on a path forward to ensure this information is acknowledged and communicated effectively to the consumer.”

The Organization for Competitive Markets and American Grassfed Association were more upbeat in their view, citing that FSIS opening up the rulemaking provides a chance for their members to push for better markets and comment on any proposed rule.

“Far too often, global monopolies control our regulatory system and almost guarantee the biggest cheaters win," said Angela Hoffman, executive director of OCM. "We are encouraged that FSIS agrees with our concerns that the current ‘Product of U.S.A.’ labeling system causes confusion for consumers and takes money out of the pockets of the farmer. We want to thank FSIS for opening up the rulemaking process to right this wrong. Farmers, ranchers and consumers deserve fair and transparent markets."

At least some in Congress want to address the beef labeling problem as a way to improve domestic cattle markets. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., on a press call Thursday reiterated the demands by him and other senators for an investigation into cattle markets. Beyond ensuring producers receive fair prices when the spread between live cattle and boxed beef becomes extreme, Rounds said more work is needed to ensure consumers understand the origin of their beef.

"Right now you can have a 'Product of USA' label on beef and it doesn't necessarily come from the USA," Rounds said. "All it has to do is be unboxed coming in on a container ship, unboxed, reprocessed, from 21 different countries overseas, and they can now put the label 'Product of the USA' on it. That is not right."

Rounds added, "We want to be able to use that voluntary 'Product of the USA' sticker only on beef that is born in the U.S., raised and fed in the U.S., and processed in the U.S. That will make that voluntary sticker a lot more powerful and a lot more valuable and it means more of our livestock will be used rather than bringing in beef from other countries and being sold as if it is U.S. beef."

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