Members of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are calling on their lobbyists to work with USDA to address “longstanding policy on geographic origin statements,” a move that comes as the agency is being petitioned to look into disingenuous use of “Product of the U.S.A.” beef labels.

The move puts the nation’s largest beef producer group, which has long been opposed to mandatory country-of-origin labeling, on the side of making sure voluntary COOL declarations are accurate and verifiable.

“What we’ve seen here is a lot of producers who are obviously opposed to a return of mCOOL … also don’t like what they’re seeing in that use of ‘Product of the U.S.A.’ labels and just don’t feel good about how that may be being applied,” Ethan Lane, NCBA’s vice president of government affairs, told Agri-Pulse.

At the heart of the concern of foreign meat being processed domestically and bearing the label of an American-produced product. In October, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association submitted a petition to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service asking them to require “that any beef product labeled as ‘Made in the USA,’ ‘Product of the USA,’ ‘USA beef,’ or otherwise indicated to be U.S. beef, come from cattle that have been born, raised, and harvested in the United States.”

In a release announcing its action, NCBA said a working group of producers studying the issue “has not determined whether such practices are occurring on a widespread basis,” but noted concerns “that consumer expectations relative to beef product labels bearing origin claims may not be consistent with FSIS’s current policy.”

Lane said NCBA sees the situation a little differently. He said origin verification might be better addressed through something like USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service rather than its food safety wing.

“Perhaps that ‘Product of the U.S.A.’ label is just not an appropriate label for FSIS to be issuing period without some kind of verification from another party, be that AMS or what have you,” he said. “Simply approving that through FSIS is probably a little too vague to be useful for consumers or appropriate for what we’re producing.”

Outside of the USCA petition, the debate over the integrity of the “Product of the U.S.A.” claims has been stirring in the cattle industry for some time. Recently, South Dakota Republicans John Thune and Mike Rounds introduced a bill to require such claims only be applied “exclusively derived from one or more animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.”

In 2015, the United States repealed parts of an mCOOL law requiring meat labels to disclose where the producing animal had been born, raised and slaughtered. Canada and Mexico challenged the U.S. law, saying it unfairly discriminated against products from their respective countries. The World Trade Organization agreed and authorized just over $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs against the U.S., but mCOOL for beef and pork was repealed before those duties could be imposed.

In a statement, the USCA said the situation requires urgency. 

“Warm tidings of cheer are nice during the holiday season, but the problems and distortions cattle producers endure in the cattle marketplace are real,” the group said. “Progress and solutions need to advance, and USCA won't rest until transparency and true price discovery is a reality for every cattle producer across the U.S.”

Lane said the looming threat of retaliation makes any conversation of country-of-origin labels, voluntary or otherwise, a tricky one.

“Those tariff threats … could be implemented again tomorrow if we saw the return of mCOOL,” he said. “This isn’t a conversation that starts at square one again. We’re there.”

While Canadian and Mexican retaliation is a threat facing the U.S. beef industry, Lane said it’s important for the discussion of U.S. labels to be focused within U.S. borders.

“This is about U.S. producers and U.S. product,” he said. “We need to make sure that we’re addressing this issue in a way that works for our membership around the country, and also with an eye toward not jeopardizing those international relationships.”

Story updated at 6:40 p.m. to include comment from the U.S. Cattlemen's Association.

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