USDA Plans to Overhaul ‘Product of the USA’ Labeling

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack Speaking at Iowa Butcher Shop

Trade Update • JULY 12, 2021

Closely following the recent announcement of a crackdown by the Federal Trade Commission on companies making false or unqualified “Made in USA” claims, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lauded the enforcement move and said his department “will complement the FTC’s efforts with our own initiative on labeling for products regulated by FSIS.”

Speaking last Friday at an Iowa butcher shop where he announced plans to launch programs aimed at increasing competition in the U.S. meat processing industry, Vilsack said the USDA is already doing a “comprehensive review” of labeling for meat, poultry, and processed eggs to address concerns that “consumers may be confused about precisely what that label means.”

Vilsack added that he didn’t think it was “fair for folks to get a market advantage when they create the misunderstanding or misrepresentation, that everything that was done with a steak was done here”

Top-to-Bottom Review

As part of a new initiative to promote transparency in Product of USA labeling, USDA has initiated a top-to-bottom review of the “Product of USA” label that it says “will, among other things, help us to determine what that label means to consumers.”

COOL Concerns

In a July 1 statement, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra said he hoped the USDA would agree that “the USDA’s Product of USA standard is misleading and distorts competition in the retail market for beef and other products.” Chopra said he believed “that unqualified claims for meat products are only appropriate when the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States.”

During his confirmation, Vilsack, who was Agriculture secretary when the Obama administration fought to maintain and later repealed U.S. country-of-origin labelling (COOL) for beef and pork after a prolonged challenge at the World Trade Organization by Canada and Mexico, had indicated his willingness to reinstate COOL. This gave hope to some U.S. producers urging the new administration to bring back the mandatory COOL requirement.

However, despite his apparent enthusiasm for the concept, Vilsack stressed the need for for any new COOL requirement to fit within the United States’ WTO obligations. “I’m absolutely willing to listen to anybody and everybody who’s got an idea how we can circumvent or get to a point where the WTO doesn’t slap it down, that creates retaliatory impacts on American agriculture,” Vilsack told lawmakers.

“Product of USA” Versus COOL

Responding to a participant at last week’s event who made note of the lengthy WTO dispute over mandatory COOL, Vilsack pointed out that the difference was it had been mandatory.

“This is not a mandatory label, this is voluntary label. And this is basically defining what that means, Ok? It’s not basically saying you have to do this. It’s saying if you do it, here’s what this has to be. And if you can’t prove that, it’s that, then you shouldn’t be allowed to put the label on it, because then you’re creating a misrepresentation, or lack of clarity about this product. And that’s not fair.”

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