A new USDA proposed rule would change the requirements for the use of a voluntary “Product of USA” or “Made in the USA” label claim, ensuring the claim is only used on meat, poultry and egg products derived from animals born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the United States.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service rolled out the proposal Monday, and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed the issue in a speech at the annual gathering of the National Farmers Union in San Francisco. In a statement released before his speech, Vilsack said the proposal will allow the labeling requirements to more accurately align with consumers’ expectations and closes a loophole.

“American consumers expect that when they buy a meat product at the grocery store, the claims they see on the label mean what they say,” said Vilsack. “These proposed changes are intended to provide consumers with accurate information to make informed purchasing decisions.”

The change would alter the current language, which allows for meat derived outside the U.S. to bear a “Product of the USA” label so long as it is processed in an American facility. Critics of the language said it confused consumers who thought they were purchasing American-grown products bearing the label.

As part of its rulemaking process, USDA commissioned a nationwide survey of what consumers believe a “Product of USA” label means; about 16% of eligible consumers identified the correct, current definition for the “Product of USA” claim. About 63% provided an incorrect response, where most believed all production steps must take place in the United States, and 21% said they did not know.

The survey also found that consumers are willing to pay more for meat products with the “Product of the USA” labeling claim.

National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said the organization was glad to see USDA take action to clarify the label requirements.

“This rule is about truth in labeling, plain and simple,” he said. “For too long, family farmers and ranchers have been competing in a market where imported products were fraudulently labeled as a product of the United States.”

Under the proposed rule, the “Product of USA” label claim would continue to be voluntary. In a release, USDA said the label would “also remain eligible for generic label approval, meaning it would not need to be pre-approved by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service before it could be used on regulated product, but would require supporting documentation to be on file for agency inspection personnel to verify.”

The rule also allows other voluntary claims to continue to be sold in the marketplace but would require a description on the package of all the preparation and processing steps that occurred in the United States upon which the claim is made.

The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association petitioned FSIS for rulemaking in 2019, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association filed its own petition in 2021, seeking a “Processed in the USA” as an alternative to the existing nomenclature.

USCA President Justin Tupper said USCA is pleased to see the proposed rule disallowing imported beef to be brought into the U.S. and undergo a “significant transformation,” which can include trimming or rewrapping, and display a “Product of the USA” label.

“USCA is thrilled that the proposed rule finally closes this loophole by accurately defining what these voluntary origin claims mean. If it says, ‘Made in the USA,’ then it should be from cattle that have only known USA soil,” Tupper said in a statement. “Consumers have the right to know where their food comes from, full stop.”

Kent Bacus, NCBA's executive director of government affairs, told Agri-Pulse ahead of the release that there is no question the current “Product of the USA” label is flawed and undercuts the ability of U.S. cattle producers to differentiate U.S. beef in the marketplace. But Bacus is skeptical of whether the proposed voluntary labeling will fix the issues facing truthful labeling.

“Simply adding born, raised and harvested requirements to an already broken label will fail to deliver additional value to cattle producers, and it will undercut true voluntary, market-driven labels that benefit cattle producers. We cannot afford to replace one flawed government label with another flawed government label,” Bacus said.

NCBA was previously opposed to the “born, raised, and slaughtered” requirements in place for mandatory country-of-origin labeling, which was repealed in 2015 after a trade dispute with Canada and Mexico.

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The North American Meat Institute said the proposed rule falls short. “Unfortunately, this proposed rule is problematic for many reasons. USDA should have considered more than public sentiment on an issue that impacts international trade,” said Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts. “Our members make considerable investments to produce beef, pork, lamb, veal and poultry products in American facilities, employing hundreds of thousands of workers in the U.S. and with processes overseen by USDA inspectors. This food should be allowed to be labeled a ‘Product of the U.S.’”

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., first introduced legislation in 2019 to require the “Product of USA” label only apply to those animals born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. He said the proposed rule restores integrity to the label and is a “victory for American consumers and producers.”

“Once this proposed rule is finalized, American consumers will no longer be misled by a ‘Product of USA’ label that is allowed to be applied to foreign products. American cattle ranchers will no longer be disadvantaged in the marketplace against lower quality foreign beef that falsely bears the ‘Product of USA' label,” Rounds said in a statement.

Consumer Reports also stated the proposal will provide consumers greater confidence in the marketing claim.

“Shoppers sometimes pay premium prices for products carrying the ‘Product of USA’ label and deserve to know they can depend on that claim,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, which also supports country of origin labeling. “But some products that carry the label actually come from other countries, which is misleading and unfair to consumers. The USDA’s proposal will help ensure consumers can shop with confidence knowing that the label means what it says.”

USDA plans to take comments on the proposed rule; a 60-day comment period will begin once the proposal is published in the Federal Register.

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