The Department of Agriculture plans to review the use of language featured on meat labels that many producers have said does not adequately describe the product’s origin.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday USDA would conduct a “top-to-bottom review of the ‘Product of the USA’ label” to help the department “determine what that label means to consumers,” among other things.

“I am committed to ensuring that the Product of USA label reflects what a plain understanding of those terms means to U.S. consumers,” he said in a statement.

USDA plans to launch a rulemaking process after a study of the issue, during which Vilsack says the department “will be considering all ideas suggested by the whole range of stakeholders, including our trading partners with whom we will engage to ensure that this labeling initiative is implemented in a way that fulfills our commitment to working cooperatively with our trade partners and meeting our international trade obligations.”

The labels have been under fire from many corners of the industry in recent years, with the primary complaint being that the labels are insufficient and possibly even inaccurate. Under the current language, an item can be labeled a “Product of the USA” so long as it was processed domestically. American producers have expressed frustration about that clause, saying it could allow foreign meat to be labeled as a U.S. product.

"The 'Product of the USA' label is not subject to source verification, is not tied to any kind of food safety standard, and is applied by packers and retailers in a manner that does not deliver value back to the cattle producer,” Jerry Bohn, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with USDA to find labeling solutions that represent investments made by producers to continually improve their product and meet consumer demand." 

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Last month, NCBA petitioned USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, asking the agency to either scrap the label or change the language to something like “processed in the USA.”

That effort followed a 2019 petition from the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association seeking to have “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 response to the USCA petition, FSIS said that the existing language “may be causing confusion in the marketplace, particularly with respect to certain imported meat products” and pledged to begin rulemaking to “define the conditions under which the labeling of meat products would be permitted to bear voluntary” origin claims.

USDA’s announcement came as the Federal Trade Commission launched “Made in the USA” enforcement action across a wider array of products. Vilsack said USDA “will complement the FTC’s efforts with our own initiative on labeling for products regulated by FSIS, an area of consumer labeling where USDA has a long tradition of protecting consumers from false and misleading labels.”

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