Truth in advertising, therefore no more fraudulent “Product of U.S.A.” labels!

Below is some Q &A with Greg Gunthorp [GG] and Carrie Balkcom [CB] regarding new “Product of USA” labeling rules being considered by the USDA. As discussed below, if these rules are implemented, any livestock meat product labeled “Product of USA”, including beef, would have to come from livestock born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. Currently, the existing labeling rules allow for any animal to be born, raised and even slaughtered elsewhere in other countries as long as the meat is processed in the United States. The current rules deceive consumers and economically hurt US livestock producers especially beef cattle ranchers.

The USDA is asking for public comment on these proposed rule changes. The deadline to make comments is May 8, 2023. So please tell the USDA: End fraudulent “Product of U.S.A.” labeling! This is very important. Please click this Submit Comment link to submit your comments before the deadline. Please ask your friends and family to do the same. Thanks!

REGEN: Who are you and what has your role been in trying to affect government policies improving the welfare of US producers?

GG: I am a farmer, processor, and meat distributor from LaGrange Indiana. We raise pastured pigs, pastured poultry, and grassfed lambs.  We have an on farm USDA plant. I’ve been niche marketing since 1998. I was direct marketing before direct marketing was cool. I direct marketed through the glory days. And I’ve watched as big Ag has invaded the niche markets with little or nothing more than changes in labels and messages from the marketing department. I’ve been working on rural advocacy issues since serving on Clinton/Glickman’s USDA Small Farm Commission. I’ve been working on truth in labeling and product of US since 2015. I’ve met with USDA FSIS, FTC, DOJ, congressman, senators, other farm organizations, etc.

CB: Executive Director, American Grassfed Association.

REGEN: Did you have a role in instigating these specific proposed labeling changes?

GG: I was a member of both American Grassfed Association and Organization for Competitive Markets. They were the organizations that filed the petition for this rule making. We spent a lot of time before the petition meeting with USDA and other agencies.

CB: Along with advocates (Greg Gunthorp, Will Harris, Joe Maxwell), we (AGA) wrote the petition in 2018 that started this process.

REGEN:  If a producer or reseller chooses to claim a product is a US product under the new rules, he/she/they can only do so if the livestock is born, raised, finished and processed in the US…though they cannot apply this label unless all three things are true, correct?

GG: That is correct.  Born, raised, and processed in the US.  Processed in the US is the current standard.  

CB: Processed in the US is the current standard.  The new language says – slaughtered.

REGEN: But just to be clear…. The proposed US label is “born, raised and slaughtered” in the US rather than born, raised and processed?  This replaces the prior label which just required processing in the US irrespective of where the head of cattle was born, raised or slaughtered? And this could, for example, include importing beef trimmings, and then grinding and blending (processing) those trimmings to get 80/20 lean ground beef? Correct?

GG:  Yes, correct.  The previous standard only has to do with where the final package occurs.  

CB: The one clarification is that this new policy adds the word – slaughtered. Currently the policy is that animals can be born, raised and slaughtered offshore. The meat can then be brought in and “repackaged”, or “processed”, such as taken from primals to ground)and be labeled ” product of the USA.”  What we are hoping is that once the comment period is over, that USDA will act on this. We want folks to comment that this should go into effect ASAP.  Guidance, policies, etc. have a tendency to languish at the USDA and never acted on, or they commission another survey or study to really gauge what the consumer wants. We all need to hold the USDA’s feet to the fire and get them to act.

There’s a little known rule at FSIS/USDA is that they are not bound to share the results of the comments with the public, or is there a time limit on how long it takes them to review the comments. (The petition results filed in 2018 still have yet to be shared.)

REGEN: Is this labeling changed legislation or something that the USDA just enacts without Congressional oversight?

CB: This change would be a policy change, no need for Congress to get involved.

GG: USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (meat and poultry inspection) are charged with ensuring that labels are truthful and not misleading. They have the authority to determine standards, guidelines, and policies on what meat and poultry establishments put on labels.This is a rule making process that USDA has the authority to carry out.  It’s different than mandatory Country of origin labeling as the US government lost that case at the World Trade Organization. This is about the 12% of so of meat in the marketplace that establishments choose to put “Product of USA” on the label.  

REGEN: What is the purpose of this legislation, and why is it important for producers and consumers?

CB: It would stop the egregious mislabeling that the USDA allows by foreign beef multi-national corporations.

GG: This is aimed at clearing up confusion in the marketplace when a meat or poultry label say “product of USA”. The new standard will require born, raised and slaughtered in the US. The current standard requires packaging and processing to occur here. Meat or poultry, imported, that goes in its final package in the US can currently have the statement “Product of USA”. Truthful transparent labels are important to commodity and niche farmers as well as consumers. It’s a cornerstone of a fair, open, competitive marketplace. Currently, commodity producers get no premium as multi-national corporations put green washed labels on commodity products and ruin niche demand in the process so it harms both commodity and niche producers. Consumers that want to encourage certain activities such as domestic regenerative agriculture are being duped for those dollars to support foreign activities. It’s literally conceivable that grassfed Product of USA beef, instead of supporting regenerative grazing in the US, could be supporting the destruction of the rain forest with the current standards as well as could be financially supporting the globalization of the food supply, loss of economic activity in rural America and the destruction of resiliency, an essential component of food security.

REGEN: Regarding the new labeling rules, how does this differ from prior COOL Requirements? Is it a matter of enactment, terms, extent and or something else? Was COOL mandatory and this is new rule optional?

GG: The new rule is optional. It’s only for those that choose to put it on their label. USDA estimates this is 12% of the meat in retail.

REGEN: How do people add their comments to the discussion and what’s the deadline to make comments?

GG: Go to the portal and comment. It’s really simple. American Grassfed Association and Farm Action both have bunches of resources and instructions on line.  

CB: Here’s the direct link: Voluntary Labeling of Regulated Products with United States-Origin Claims. May 8th is the deadline for comment.

REGEN: Do these changes go far enough? Are they a good start? What additional improvements could be pushed for?

GG: No, these changes don’t go far enough, but what they do is create the awareness at USDA that consumers and producers demand truth in labeling. Putting imported foreign product in a package in the US and labeling it “product of USA” is the most egregious mislabeling of meat and poultry in the US. It’s a great place to start. It forced USDA to put the systems in place to survey consumers to understand expectations of label terms. This should be the starting point. Meat and Poultry Act authorized USDA to ensure that meat and poultry entering commerce had a level playing field including safe and wholesome standards as well as charging them with ensuring no mislabeling.  In the days of the Jungle, this was ensuring fat wasn’t being skimmed from the river and added to lard, canned products didn’t have toxic chemicals to cover up rotten meat, lesser value cuts weren’t labeled as higher dollar items such as a picnic wasn’t labeled as a pork butt, and tares and weights were accurate. Those things are still important. But in the meat industry of the modern century the USDA FSIS has not kept pace with the situations that have created mislabeling in meat and poultry.  It’s calling commodity pork “natural” when that only means minimally processed and 30 some percent of consumers think it means organically raised.  It’s calling broiler chickens free roaming when all broilers are raised in careless barns. It’s calling pork gestation crate free when they are kept in gestation crates for up to 70 days “only to verify pregnancy”. It’s a Chinese corporation, the largest owner and processor of pigs in the US, putting green grass, red barn, natural, and no hormones on their pork labels.  It’s calling something humanely raised because you have records that you did all the things of standard confinement production.  Labeling reform is essential if we are to rebuild resilient local and regional food systems, restore rural communities, give farmers opportunities, and give consumers true choices. 

CB: How much time do you have to listen?  Subsidy reform would be a huge bonus for American Family Farms and Farmers

REGEN: Or, is this the best we can hope for given the large influence of consolidated corporate meat packers?

GG: Turning the federal government back towards the people is like turning a huge freighter in the ocean. It’s a long process but change happens fast once we finally get it turning. This is about fixing an egregious labeling issue and turning an agency.  

CB: I’m an optimist, I believe that once the ship starts turning, it’ll be a slow turn, but still it’s a turn

REGEN: If not, how do consumers and small/family producers gain influence to change the system more broadly?

GG: We need to show up in large numbers so the USDA cannot continue to dismiss us. This is a huge opportunity for us to start the change.  There is resounding support for this effort, but I worry if we don’t get a lot of comments that industry will continue to dominate and destroy opportunities and choices.  

CB: Vote for folks that support your values, we’re tired of platitudes and what I call the “bobble headed” doll responses from not only elected officials, but the USDA bureaucrats that will pass the word up to their superiors. 

REGEN: Where does this leave other ranchers in N. America (Mexico and Canada) that sell calves to US stockers or sell their stockers to US feedlots? Does this alter the supply chain for these Mexican or Canadian cow-calf or stocker operations?

GG:It would alter the supply chains of anyone that chooses to put a “Product of USA” on the label.

REGEN: Do these labels only pertain to labels on packaged goods? Or do they also pertain to a burger joint that claims all of its beef in its burgers is from the US?

GG: The convoluted system of food inspection means this labeling requirement will be only for labels applied at USDA inspected meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants.  It will not pertain to labels applied at retail (FDA inspection) nor will it apply to labels or messaging applied at restaurants (also FDA inspection).  However, FTC has jurisdiction on all “Made in USA” or product of USA claims not delegated to another agency.  FTC has had the born, raised, and processed requirement already but it would not stand yet on meat because USDA allows this deceptive label.  

REGEN: Note, I’m particularly curious about how beef trimmings are accounted for since I use to make the argument that very little of the beef consumed in the US came from Brazil. Over the past few years, more and more of the beef trimmings have come from Brazil rather than Australia or elsewhere. So my argument isn’t as strong anymore especially when it comes to consuming burgers. I imagine many of the chains get their grinds for their burgers from the cheapest source possible to maintain their low price point.

GG: This will impact beef trim. Beef trim imports will make product ineligible to bear the “product of USA label”

CB: Once the policy is in place, then we will reach out to the Nat’l Restaurant Assn, and as well as the truth in menu folks to let them know that they will need to training.

REGEN: Anyway, I previously posed some questions to Mike about trimmings per this attachment immediately below.

So, my last and final question is as follows:

How are beef trimmings handled by this law? Does it address any of Mike’s concerns? Do all these trimmings have to be from cattle born, raised and processed into grinds here in the US? And again what about trimmings made into burgers and sold at places like Mickey D’s?

GG: The labels applied at USDA plants will require no foreign trim if they are going to label “product of USA”.  As I mentioned that will be the end of USDA’s jurisdiction. It will be FDA and FTC if the restaurant or retailer makes false claims.  

One question I have that neither Mike nor I have got an answer is how or whether this will impact USDA procurement and purchasing. They use a “domestic production only” standard rather than “Product of USA”.  I’m afraid they intentionally made this so it will not impact themselves.  They will not answer me or Mike on this question.

CB: They also left themselves a loop hole that says that the sourcing has to be competitive, meaning if they find an offshore supply that is ” lower cost:, then that’s their get out of jail free card. There needs to be guard rails put in place, that the price has to be substantially lower, for off shore,  not just a percentage of a point or……


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