Politico: Groups ask USDA to tighten ‘Product of USA’ labeling on meat

Groups ask USDA to tighten ‘Product of USA’ labeling on meat

By Christine Haughney

06/12/2018 12:01 PM EDT

Two major agriculture groups filed petition with USDA on Tuesday asking for changes in 33-year-old regulations that have permitted foreign grass-fed beef producers to use a "Product of U.S.A." label if their beef passes through a USDA-inspected plant.

In its nine-page petition, the American Grassfed Association and the Organization for Competitive Markets asked USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service to change its policy to allow only U.S. domestically raised meat products to be labeled "Product of U.S.A."

The groups say that the largest multinational corporations, which control 80 percent of the U.S. beef market, have been taking advantage of the technicality that allows imported meat and meat products to be brought into the U.S. and pass through a USDA-inspected plant to bear the label.

"In 2013, Cargill announced its deal with an Australian company to import into the U.S. both grass-fed and grain-fed Australian beef," the petition states. "These corporations can simply import cheaper foreign beef, pass it through USDA-inspected plants or blend it with U.S. beef and gain the increased market value that can be attributed to ‘Product of U.S.A.’"

Consumers also want to know where their food comes from and are often willing to pay a premium if the food is grown in the U.S., especially with grass-fed beef. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are the leading exporters of grass-fed beef into the U.S., according to the petition.

The groups are asking that USDA change its wording now because they have seen their profits in grass-fed beef decline drastically in the past year. Joe Maxwell, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, said this decline started in 2015 when country-of-origin labeling was repealed. Maxwell said that since then, "we have just seen an escalation of the usage of this labeling."

Grass-fed beef has also become an incredibly lucrative segment of the market for domestic producers. The two groups said in their joint press release that grass-fed beef sales grew exponentially to $272 million in 2016, from $17 million in 2012, and producers can receive up to a 30 percent premium on their product.

Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures farm in Georgia and president of the American Grassfed Association, said that even though he has seen Australian beef in the U.S. market since the 1970s, that he has just noticed it displacing American grass-fed beef in the last year because it can still qualify for a "Product of U.S.A." label.

He said that margins on his farm’s grass-fed beef have dropped by over 50 percent in the past year. "We’ve had to lower the price to compete with imported product that is sold as product of the United States," said Harris said.

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