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Foreign beef can legally be labeled “Product of U.S.A.” It’s killing America’s grass-fed industry
July 16, 2018

Editor’s note: This article shows how the elimination of country of origin labeling for meat caused American producers’ share of the grass fed cattle market to decline from 60% to 15% in just a few years.

Last month, in a petition formally filed with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), two advocacy groups made a stunning claim: Your American grass-fed beef might actually come from overseas, even if it’s labeled “Product of U.S.A.”

[Joe Fassler | July 16, 2018 | New Food Economy]

Those two groups—the American Grassfed Association (AGA), which offers the country’s leading “grass-fed” certification, and the Organization for Competitive Markets, a watchdog group that fights corporate consolidation in the food industry—point out that a massive regulatory loophole allows companies to falsely, and yet legally, claim their imported beef comes from our pastures.

The trouble began in 2015, when the Obama administration’s USDA rolled back Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for beef and pork products, allowing meat to be sold without disclosing its home country on the label. But that decision, which angered many American ranchers, has further muddied the waters in a way no one quite anticipated. Under the current rules, beef and pork products that are shipped to the United States and processed further here, can be labeled “product of U.S.A.,” even if the animal was raised a continent away. That means a steer slaughtered in Uruguay and broken down into steaks at a meatpacking plant in Colorado is technically American meat—even if it isn’t.  

That’s a huge issue for American grass-fed producers, who are now finding themselves undercut by foreign competition. Allen Williams, a 6th-generation rancher and founding partner of Grass Fed Insights, a leading consulting group on grass-fed beef, says U.S. producers owned more than 60 percent of the domestic grass-fed market in 2014. Then came COOL. By 2017, American ranchers’ share had plunged to just 20 to 25 percent, according to an industry analysis by the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture. Today, Williams, who consulted on the Stone Barns report, says American producers claim only about 15 percent of the grass-fed market—and that share is rapidly shrinking.

Ranchers attribute the decline directly to COOL repeal. The fact that foreign companies can pass their imported beef off as American, they say, has made fair competition impossible.

“The very idea of labeling beef in a grocery store ‘product of U.S.A.,’ when the animal never drew a breath of air on this continent, is just horrible,” says Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures, which produces its branded line of grass-fed beef in Bluffton, Georgia. (Harris is also on AGA’s board of directors.) “I don’t begrudge importers or producers from other countries selling to knowing consumers that want to buy that imported product. But I’m appalled at what the deception has done to the economies of our membership. It has moved the needle from grass-fed beef producers being profitable, to being a very break-even—or, if you’re not careful, a losing—proposition.” 

Imported grass-fed beef brands are taking advantage of a legal ambiguity—and some are downright deceptive.

But though pastured beef often isn’t as American as it looks, a question remains: How much does it actually matter? I found myself wondering how much we mean to prioritize domestic purchasing when we spend a little more to buy grass-fed, and whether the product’s country of origin makes a meaningful difference. Are grass-fed steaks from Australia all that different from those raised on a ranch outside Austin, Texas? I wanted to know whether we we should stop handwringing about geography—or if misleading labels somehow betray the grass-fed ethos, and amount to a profound abuse of consumer trust.

Grazed and confused

If Williams is right that only 15 percent of the grass-fed beef is raised domestically, you wouldn’t necessarily know it just by strolling through the grocery store. On a recent trip to Trader Joe’s, I inspected a package of “100 percent grass-fed organic ground beef,” looking for clues about its origins. The casual observer could be forgiven for mistaking that product for American meat. The splashy consumer-facing label features a USDA organic seal, a USDA inspection sticker, and, in smaller print, the phrase “processed in USA” alongside Trader Joe’s corporate address in Monrovia, California. Of course, foreign beef can still be certified USDA organic and all imported meat goes through USDA inspection. But this product features not one but four allusions to the U.S. on its label. The average shopper wouldn’t be crazy to assume it’s coming from here.

Flip the package over, though—to the side few people read up close—and the label tells a different story. In small, no-frills font, below the freeze-by date and above the safe handling instructions, are the words “Product of USA, Australia, and Uruguay.” That phrasing would seem to suggest that Trader Joe’s ground beef is a blend of beef from American, Australian, and Uruguayan cows—an arrangement that might surprise some customers, given what the front of the package says. But even thatreasonable assumption may not be accurate. Trader Joe’s may only be buying Australian and Uruguayan meat that’s then ground at a facility in the U.S.—enough to qualify as American in the eyes of regulators. It isn’t really possible to tell.

If Trader Joe’s and other grocery brands were really selling meat from cows raised in this country, you’d think they’d make a bigger deal of it.

Trader Joe’s organic grass-fed ribeye steak also prominently features USDA’s organic and inspection seals on the front—as well as the phrase “Product of USA” in small font on the back, by the nutrition facts. But are the company’s grass-fed ribeyes really produced here? Or are they just processed here? It’s impossible to tell from the label alone, and Trader Joe’s had not responded to my requests for clarification by press time.

The Trader Joe’s scenario is a good example of how products can follow the letter of the labeling law and still be misleading. But other brands have done more to take advantage of this legal ambiguity—and some are downright deceptive.

Bubba Foods, a Jacksonville, Florida-based company whose products are sold by major retailers like Walmart, Kroger, and Wegman’s, puts its American-made claims front and center. The label on the company’s grass-fed ground beef displays a prominent “Product of USA” banner, complete with an American flag—and, if that wasn’t enough, the proud phrase “Born & Raised in the USA.” But paperwork filed with USDA, obtained by the American Grassfed Association and shared with me, suggests the product may not be American at all—at least, not in the conventional sense most shoppers would understand.

Bubba Foods’ marketing would suggest that its beef is born and raised in the U.S. A look at its affidavit to the USDA suggest otherwise

Any producer who wants to sell a commercial grass-fed beef product has to file an affidavit with USDA’s Food Standards Inspection Service (FSIS), laying out the agricultural practices it will use and submitting an example of their product label. Bubba’s affidavit includes several details that caught my attention, considering the aggressive nationalism of its label. A nutritional analysis describes the product as “import grass-fed” beef. It also includes an import record from Australia, noting that an “Australian National Vendor Declaration” will certify the product’s grass-feeding regime. The final 20 pages of the document lay out the specifics of Australia’s Pasture-Fed Cattle Assurance Standard, a program that isn’t available in other countries.