Momentum builds for Product of USA label

American cattle producers have asked the U.S. Congress and federal regulators for years to strengthen the Product of USA label. It could be bad news for Canadian producers if their U.S. counterparts get their way. | REUTERS/JEFF HAYNES PHOTO

American cattle producers support the Biden administration as it forges ahead with ‘top to bottom’ review of meat labels

It’s nearly a certainty that America will change its Product of the USA label for meat.

President Joe Biden and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack seem determined to clear up confusion over the voluntary labeling program and make it easier to understand.

In the first week of July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a “top to bottom” review of the Product of USA label.

Several days later the White House made a similar announcement, asking the USDA to take action on the label.

“Under current labeling rules, meat can be labelled ‘Product of USA’ if it is only processed here — including when meat is raised overseas and then merely processed into cuts of meat here,” the White House said in a July 9 executive order.

“Most grass-fed beef labelled ‘Product of USA’ is actually imported. That makes it hard or impossible for consumers to know where their food comes from and to choose to support American farmers and ranchers.”

For years, American cattle ranchers have asked the U.S. Congress and federal regulators to strengthen the Product of USA label so that the voluntary standard is meaningful.

Cattle producers and farmer organizations have complained that companies can put the label on a package of beef and other meat, even if the animal was born and raised in another country.

Now that the White House is publicly in support of change, the USDA will make the review a priority.

“We’re optimistic the process will get underway and be completed rather quickly,” said Matt Perdue, government relations director with the North Dakota Farmers Union.

“When you have an agency that announces a review … and a week later the White House saying you absolutely need to review this, that creates a sense of urgency.”

The National Farmers Union and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association both want the Product of USA label to apply only to meat that comes from animals that are born, raised, fed and slaughtered in America.

If they get their way, it could be a significant blow for cattle, hog and bison producers in Canada who ship live animals to the U.S. for feeding. It will also impact Canadian processing plants that export meat to the U.S.

The Product of USA program is voluntary but it could create a two-tiered market in America’s meat sector, where pork, beef and bison labelled with a U.S. flag is sold at a higher price.

“There are consumers who want to buy local, buy regionally and support U.S. ranchers,” Perdue said. “That (market) segment inevitably leads to higher returns for U.S. producers. It adds value to their product.”

However, the Product of USA label is voluntary. Many companies within America’s meat industry may choose not to use it on their products and Canadian exporters could continue to supply those firms with beef, pork or live animals.

The final USDA decision will affect Canada’s red meat sector because it’s highly likely that the review will result in changes to the labelling program, said an agriculture journalist who works in Washington, D.C.

It’s uncertain how far the USDA will go and where the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association will stand on the changes. The NCBA is a powerful lobby group and usually gets what it wants, the journalist said.

The NCBA supports an integrated beef market in North America but has also said the Product of USA label is flawed.

“It not only misleads consumers, it is yet another barrier to producers gaining leverage and distinguishing their product in the marketplace,” said NCBA president Jerry Bohn.

“NCBA members have voiced concerns about the potentially misleading use of the label…. 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.”

The NCBA opposed mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) for meat in America. COOL was in place in the U.S. from 2009 to 2015, until Congress was forced to repeal the law to comply with World Trade Organization rules. The WTO ruled, several times, that the law discriminated against Canadian and Mexican livestock producers.

Support for COOL remains strong in America, especially with cow-calf producers. But it’s unlikely Congress will pass mandatory COOL legislation, the ag journalist said.

Farm groups are lobbying for a stringent Product of USA label because a return of COOL would probably violate the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and is not politically viable.

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