Country of origin labeling for meat once involved lofty policy debates in Congress and international bodies like the World Trade Organization.

Now two influential groups have decided it would help domestic producers and consumers alike if USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) would change its policies. The Lincoln, NE-based Organization for Competitive Markets and the Denver-based American Grass-fed Association (AGA) have petitioned FSIS for the policy amendment.

Currently, FSIS policy permits labeling meat as a “Product of the USA” if it meets either one of two criteria.

The first is if the country to which the product is exported requires the labeling and the product is processed in the U.S. The second is if the product is processed in the U.S. (i.e., is of domestic origin.)

Instead, the two groups want FSIS to adopt new language for the second part. They want it to read:

“If it can be determined that significant ingredients having a bearing on consumer preference such as meat, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, etc., are of domestic origin (minor ingredients such as spices and flavorings are not included). In this case, the labels should be approved with the understanding that such ingredients are of domestic origin.”

OCM and AGA say the current FSIS policy allows foreign imported meat and meat products to be brought into the U.S., processed through a USDA inspected plant and labeled “Product of U.S.A.” They say that is counter to the legal authority granted to FSIS in federal law and by its regulations. As a result, they say the current policy is having the very adverse outcomes on farmers and consumers that Congress specifically stated were the consequences it intended to prevent when enacting the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA).

FSIS has opted to put the petition out for public comment until Aug. 17, a sign the agency may give serious consideration to the change.

The current policy has more impact on some market segments than others. About 91 percent of U.S beef consumption is from domestic production. However, only 20 to 25 of the grass-fed beef market in the U.S. is from local suppliers. Grass-fed beef from Australia and South America make up the difference; some with a “Product of U.S.A.” labels due to FSIS policy.

“Hit hardest by misbranding of U.S. meat products are those U.S. producers who have been transitioning their operations to grass-fed beef. This market opportunity has been the one bright spot in U.S. cattle production with sales nearly doubling annually,” the petition says.

OCM is a national organization with the stated purpose of working on behalf of America’s farmers and consumers to ensure agricultural markets are fair and transparent. OCM is a public policy research and advocacy organization. OCM has been a leader in efforts to ensure consumers have the information they need to know the origin of their meat and meat products. It played a crucial role in the passage of mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) in 2002.

It says the current FSIS labeling policy hinders its effort to assist U.S. family farmers in connecting with U.S. consumers who demonstrate a preference for U.S. domestic meat and meat products. AGA is the nation’s leading organization in the development of grass-fed meat production and market development for producers of grass-fed beef, dairy, and pastured pork.

Congressionally mandated Country-of-Origin labeling was repealed after the World Trade Organization (WTO) found it violated restrictions on non-tariff barriers to international trade. WTO would have permitted Canada and Mexico to imposed retaliatory tariffs on the U.S. if the COOL regulations had remained in place.

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