Product of USA?

If you watch food labels in retail stores- and you should, you’ll see many meat products labeled on the package with “Product of USA”. 


What do you think “Product of USA” means? You’d most likely believe that the product originates in the U.S., of course.


But you’d be wrong.


What could be more transparent and honest than labeling the origin of meat correctly? Yet, it’s not done. Why?


Federal regulations about Country of Origen Labeling (COOL) were repealed by congress in 2016. Meat plants and retailers are therefore doing nothing wrong by Federal USDA rules. 


Yet, I believe the meat industry has an awful credibility problem in the labeling claim “Product of USA” for products that originated elsewhere. 


Very commonly ground beef comes from New Zealand, Uruguay, Chile (or any other country approved to import meat into the U.S.) in the form of frozen trimmings, then is mixed with fresh lean trimmings from U.S. beef, ground into patties or chubs, and thus labeled “Product of U.S.A.”


I was working in a USDA inspected beef plant in 2009-2012, while COOL was mandatory. Initially, we had to claim on all invoices and 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 big 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 World Trade Organization (WTO) and the USA lost two rounds at the WTO. Congress then repealed COOL in 2016.


Since then, a few 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. Some 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, and I feel is dishonest. 


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.  


According to USDA rules, by grinding beef or pork, you are substantially “transforming” the product enough that it can be labeled as “Product of USA.” This can happen in a meat processing plant or at a retail store meat department. 


This practice is especially prevalent in the U.S. for organic beef. Most organic ground beef found in retails markets is NOT from the United States.


At Barber’s Foods, we source only products that are from the USA. We don’t buy any products that come from animals raised or harvested overseas. We are frequently in the plants that we source from to verify this. Trust us to know where the food comes from that you will buy to feed your family and support American agriculture.  


If you have questions about COOL and labeling, you can contact me at greg@barbersfoods.com

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