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Monday, May 04 2020

Product of USA?

Here we find ourselves, as an industry, in a pickle. For starters, generations Y and Z are more skeptical and curious than Gen X ever was about where food comes from; how it’s raised, processed and labeled. At the same time, meat faces competition from alternate proteins. Additionally, many leaders in the meat industry, even here on Meatingplace, speak openly about the fact that our industry needs to be more transparent.

What could be more transparent than labeling the origin of meat correctly? Yes, I know that mandatory COOL was repealed by congress in 2016. Meat plants and retailers are therefore doing nothing wrong by USDA AMS rules. Yet, I believe we have a credibility problem in the labeling claim “Product of USA” for products that originated elsewhere.

Let’s all, just for the next few paragraphs, imagine that we aren’t in the food business. We’re just normal consumers. We go to the market and while browsing the meat section, we see many meat products labeled “Product of USA.” What do you think most consumers would think that means? They would believe that the product originates in the U.S., of course.

They wouldn’t think that that the ground beef came from New Zealand (or any other country approved to import meat into the U.S.) in the form of frozen 90% trimmings, then mixed with fresh 65% trimmings from U.S. beef, ground into patties or chubs, and thus labeled “Product of U.S.A.”

I was working in a beef plant in 2009-2012, while COOL was mandatory. Initially, we had to claim on the bill of ladings, invoices and box labels, “Product of USA, Canada or Mexico.” Many of our retail customers didn’t want to print that on the store labels, so we had to source our cattle from the U.S. only, to allow the paperwork to say, “Product of USA.”

Larger beef plants had to segregate cattle and production and it became a real financial loser, so a couple of plants no longer allowed cattle from Mexico or Canada in their doors. This prompted, as you may recollect, Canada and Mexico to turn to the WTO and the USA lost two rounds at the WTO. Congress then repealed COOL in 2016.

Since then, many retail store brands have opted for the high road. If they’re using imported meat, their label states, “packaged in the USA, from imported beef.” I think this is good, honest, transparent labeling. Many other brands state nothing at all about the country of origin on grinds, at least not misleading consumers. But many brands, following the repeal of COOL, have opted for the “Product of USA” claim, which has become far too ambiguous.

You can read a quick USDA summary of current COOL rules here. You will see that COOL is designed to inform consumers where their food originates, which is a noble thing. Also note that beef, pork, turkey, milk, cheese, rice and wheat are all exempt from COOL and that in 2016 mandatory COOL requirements for beef and pork muscle cuts, ground beef, and ground pork were also repealed. This has led to a lot of consumer confusion. 

By grinding beef or pork, according to the USDA, you are substantially “transforming” the product enough that it can be labeled as “Product of USA.”

I’m not at all proposing new USDA regulations for COOL. I’m also not condemning imported ground beef components, which I blogged about before and you can read here. What I am promoting is that as an industry we, along with our retail partners, should take the high road and stop misinforming consumers, because “Product of USA” has become so misleading, especially with beef.

If you know that your meat originated in the U.S., then label it so. I believe an honest, common-sense definition of “origin” would be where the animal spent most its life.

We as an industry should be trustworthy. The current labeling options practiced by many companies and retailers in our industry are hurting our credibility. At a time such as this, with social media the norm, Gen’s Y and Z are on constant fact-finding missions. Let’s be transparent about the origin of the products we sell.

What do you think is the best way forward that allows for transparency and truthful labels?

Posted by: Greg Bloom AT 11:45 am   |  Permalink   |  Email