By Nicole Rasul
American shoppers face yet another dilemma in the grocery store aisle. According to a petition submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) by the Organization for Competitive Markets and the American Grassfed Association, not all meat labeled “Product of U.S.A.” is actually from animals raised within U.S. borders.
It is “deceptive and misleading,” says the advocacy organizations in the document. They state that due to an ambiguity in the language in a regulatory policy, imported meat that is processed in a USDA-inspected facility is being labeled “Product of U.S.A.” despite the fact that the animal source was born, raised and slaughtered in another country.
In the $800 billion American meat industry, this persists even though the majority of consumers have said that they want to know from which countries their grocery products are sourced.
The Ambiguous Fine Print
The petition claims that the “Product of U.S.A.” classification defined in the FSIS Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book relies on a murky processing standard. The advocacy organizations are requesting that the Policy Book language be updated to focus on the origin of a product’s ingredients rather than its processing location to ensure truthful labeling.
“Following the repeal of mandatory Country of Origin Labeling in 2015, global meatpacking corporations began abusing the label by misbranding meat and meat products from foreign countries as ‘Product of U.S.A.’ after moving them through USDA-inspected processing plants,” the organizations write in a news release.
With this week’s announcement of a U.S.-Mexico trade deal, it remains unknown if a future policy will reinstate COOL regulations for all meat products.
“When President Trump was first elected he made a statement regarding his wish to reinstate COOL,” says Angela Huffman, the director of communications and research for the Organization for Competitive Markets. “We are waiting to see what will happen.”
The Winners and Losers
American pork producers have not been as negatively impacted by “Product of U.S.A.” mislabeling as American cattle farmers, according to Huffman. “The American pork industry is pretty vertically integrated,” she explains. “Most of the pork produced in the U.S. is under contract with one of the top four multinational pork companies.” In contrast, the American beef industry includes a higher number of independent producers who may not be under contract with multinational beef companies, she says.
The American grassfed beef industry, in particular, has been hardest hit by the abuse of the “Product of U.S.A.” label, according to Huffman. “Seventy-five percent of grassfed beef sold in the U.S. is imported,” she says. “It’s really hurting the bottom line for American grassfed producers.”
From 2010 to 2015, the U.S. cattle industry saw a steady rise in its product’s pricing. After 2015 the value of American cattle steadily dropped. Citing industry data, the petition notes that by the end of 2015 U.S. beef imports were up 33% while U.S. cattle market pricing fell 30%.
The document alleges that the real winners in the current scenario are the four food corporations that control 80% of the American beef market (Cargill, Tyson, JBS and National Beef). Utilizing the language ambiguity in the “Product of U.S.A” standard, the corporations are importing foreign meat to support their supply chains, processing it and labeling it as “Product of U.S.A.” prior to sale to consumers, the petition claims.
The Organization for Competitive Markets and the American Grassfed Association write in the petition that this process allows “for an unfair market advantage for foreign meat and meat products that not only deceives the consumer, but it financially harms U.S. family farmers and independent ranchers.”
In an email, Eric Mittenthal, vice president of communications for the North American Meat Institute, states that the petition asks FSIS to change a voluntary labeling policy that has been in place for more than 30 years, well before COOL was implemented in the 2002 Farm Bill. As noted in the group’s public comments submitted to the USDA, the Institute believes that the proposed language in the petition would cause “confusion and chaos” for consumers and the industry.
“…The petition ignores, however, a fundamental requirement in the Federal Meat Inspection Act: that ‘All products, after entry into the United States, shall be deemed and treated as domestic products.’ To treat imported products differently conflicts with the law, a conclusion affirmed by a federal judge just one week before the petition was filed,” Mittenthal writes.
According to the Organization for Competitive Markets, the suggested change to the FSIS Policy Book is supported by a number of U.S. food and farming entities, including the National Farmers Union, the U.S. Cattleman’s Association, member organizations within the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and the Natural Grocers organization.
FSIS has opened the petition for public comment until September 17.