MCOOL supporters look to revive preferred meat labeling through “Made in USA” claims.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

September 15, 2020

6 Min Read
Product of USA meat label on ribeye steaks
LABEL FIX COMING: USDA undertaking rulemaking to address mislabeling of meat with Product of USA label if foreign meat is used. USDA

For years, beef and pork from animals that were born, raised and slaughtered in another country but processed in the U.S. has legally been labeled as a “Product of the USA,” but now, calls for change are aimed at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to strengthen labeling claims under the “Made in the USA” (MUSA) label.

FTC’s efforts to improve enforcement of MUSA claims were welcomed but also could be used by some in the industry to push unwarranted change beyond what the U.S. Department of Agriculture already oversees.

FTC’s proposed rule would strengthen its enforcement program and help businesses understand and comply with the MUSA labeling law. The proposed rule would set clear standards on what would constitute unqualified MUSA claims and would authorize FTC to assess penalties against businesses making unlawful MUSA claims on product labels.

In joint comments, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and Meat Importers Council of America (MICA) noted that several comments filed via regarding the proposal urged FTC to act on meat product labeling, particularly for beef. NAMI and MICA called these comments "misplaced" for failing to recognize" that USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) "has primary jurisdiction over the meat and poultry labeling through the authority provided the in the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act.”

Related:FSIS to initiate new rule-making on meat labeling

FSIS has a long history of voluntarily using the phrase “Product of the U.S.” and similar concepts, e.g., “Made in the USA,” their comments note. NAMI and MICA asked that FTC acknowledge in the preamble of any final rule it may promulgate that FSIS has primary jurisdiction over meat and poultry product labeling.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) said in comments that it's concerned that the criteria and enforcement of a MUSA label will be no different from the generic “Product of USA” label and “will do little to allow our producers to truly differentiate our beef in the marketplace and provide meaningful information to consumers.”

NCBA added, “Unfortunately, the existence of these generic government labels may actually discourage the use of market-driven, source-verified and voluntary private labels that reward producers. Why would a retailer pay a premium for a product when a generic government-mandated label will suffice?" The comments noted that MUSA, mandatory country-of-origin labeling (mCOOL) and other government-led efforts may have good intentions," but NCBA is concerned that these labels will only "perpetuate the problem" of America’s cattle producers "not being rewarded for marketing our cattle to meet consumer demands.”

Related:Bill looks to ensure clear meat labeling standards

NCBA said “repackaging mCOOL as criteria for MUSA claims or as enforcement guidelines for FTC 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.”

National Farmers Union (NFU) president Rob Larew urged FTC to swiftly finalize the rule and “vigorously enforce it.”

Larew noted that when mCOOL was in effect, "it was easy to determine where meat had been born, raised and processed -- to the benefit of both parties -- but since it was unjustifiably reversed five years ago and replaced with these deceptive ‘Product of the USA’ labels, it’s become nearly impossible for consumers to determine the origin of the meat they’re eating or for ranchers to differentiate their products.”

NFU added that by enforcing existing guidance on U.S. origin claims on labels and penalizing those who mislabel consumer goods, FTC’s proposed rule would help deter misleading claims on imported meat. “We urge FTC to finalize and enforce this rule; FSIS should then follow suit by amending its meat labeling standards to reflect FTC’s recommendation that all or virtually all ingredients in a product must be made and sourced in the United States in order to carry a label that indicates it was ‘Made in the USA,’” Larew said.

The Family Farm Acton Alliance, a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization focused on research and policy development, said the rule-making is imperative to deter deceptive claims currently made in meat and meat product labeling in an already complex food labeling landscape.

Joe Maxwell, president and chief executive officer of Family Farm Action Alliance, stated, “With the loss of country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork meat and meat products by the Congress in 2015 and USDA Secretary [Sonny] Perdue’s continued allowance of imported meat products to be rewrapped and marked as “Product of USA,” it is time somebody in Washington, D.C., stood up for independent farmers and ranchers. We see this FTC proposed rule as an opportunity to do just that, as 15 USC § 45a grants FTC specific authority to establish rules governing ‘Made in the USA’ label claims. We are simply asking the FTC to utilize fully its congressional grant of authority.”

The Family Farm Action Alliance supports FTC’s ingredient origin standard’s language of “all or virtually all” contained in the proposed rule for non-meat products. However, it strongly suggested that FTC take the next step and require the entirety of any meat or meat product under a MUSA label be from animals 100% U.S. “born, raised and harvested,” not just “sourced.”

“As written now, the proposed rule could allow a beef or pork animal born and raised outside of the U.S. and then imported and harvested in the U.S. [to be] in compliance with the ‘sourced’ standard and the MUSA label. Without the language change, it would be no better than USDA’s known meat country-of-origin loophole and must be addressed in the upcoming rule-making,” the alliance said in a statement.

Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) noted in its own statement that FTC’s request for comment on the proposed rule invited submissions that would identify any inconsistencies in the rule that conflict with current state or federal COOL requirements.

In its comments, OCM outlined what it claimed as several inconsistencies between FTC’s criteria and federal COOL law regarding imported meat, one of which is that some types of imported meat, such as beef and pork, are not included in the definition of products subject to COOL laws, while other types like lamb, goat and chicken are required to be labeled. Another inconsistency identified by OCM is that, while processed foods are typically exempt from the current COOL law, whole muscle cuts of meat and ground meat are not processed foods and should be subject to COOL requirements.

“The criteria set forth by the FTC’s proposed ‘Made in the USA’ labeling rule are straightforward, commonsense standards that we feel are adequate to address the issues facing producers and consumers alike who deserve truth and transparency in the marketplace,” OCM stated in its comments. “The criteria in the [notice of public rule-making] should be enforced, with penalties for violations sufficient to discourage infractions. Only with consistent country-of-origin labeling standards across all sectors will any ‘Made in the USA’ claim be effective in establishing fair trade, producer protection and consumer confidence.”

R-CALF USA filed comments alleging that USDA has long been violating the Tariff Act of 1930 that requires imported beef to retain its foreign origin label all the way to the ultimate consumer, unless the beef or beef product is subjected to substantial transformation. However, USDA requires only minimal processing, such as repackaging the product, for the importer to remove the foreign label and replace it with a Product of USA label.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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