The U.S. Department of Agriculture's release of a proposed rule changing regulatory requirements to better align the voluntary “Product of USA” label claim with consumer understanding of what the claim means was met with concern from a number of meat and poultry industry trade groups.

The proposed rule allows the voluntary “Product of USA” or “Made in the USA” label claim to be used on meat, poultry and egg products only when they are derived from animals born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the U.S.

The North American Meat Institute said the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service’s proposed rule change would likely to result in trade retaliation from Canada and Mexico under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), costing U.S. consumers and businesses billions of dollars.

“USDA should have considered more than public sentiment on an issue that impacts international trade,” NAMI President and CEO Julie Anna Potts said. “Our members make considerable investments to produce beef, pork, lamb, veal and poultry products in American facilities, employing hundreds of thousands of workers in the U.S. and with processes overseen by USDA inspectors. This food should be allowed to be labeled a ‘Product of the USA.’”

The National Pork Producers Council also voiced concern over the USDA labeling proposal conflicting with U.S. trade agreement commitments.

A statement on the NPPC website said, “NPPC is still reviewing the proposed ‘Product of the USA’ label rule and plans to submit comments. Today’s fully integrated and globally competitive North American market benefits consumers, American farmers and the U.S. economy. It is important that the proposed rule not violate international obligations under the WTO and agreements with our Canadian and Mexican trading partners.”

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service  labeling regulations already require that chicken sold at retail clearly and accurately identify its country of origin, National Chicken Council President Mike Brown said.

“Consumers seeking USA chicken can already find the ‘Hatched, Raised & Harvested in the U.S.’ label on American chicken,” Brown said. “More than 99% of the chicken we consume is of domestic origin and can easily be identified.”

According to NCC, under the proposed rule the “Product of USA” label claim would continue to be voluntary. It would remain eligible for generic label approval, meaning it would not need FSIS pre-approval before it could be used on regulated product, but would require supporting documentation to be on file for inspector verification.

The proposed USDA rule follows a request made by the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association in a petition for rulemaking submitted to FSIS in 2019.

USCA said the proposed rulemaking aims to close the “Product of the U.S.A.” loophole that meatpackers use to mask the identity of comingled beef products. Under current regulations, imported beef product can be brought into the U.S., undergo a “significant transformation,” — which can be as simple as trimming or rewrapping — and then claim the “Product of the U.S.A.” label.

In a statement on USDA’s action, USCA President Justin Tupper said, “In our 2019 petition for rulemaking to FSIS, USCA called out the practice of applying ‘Product of the USA’ and ‘Made in the USA’ labeling claims on beef products that the food safety agency itself admitted could have come from other countries. USCA is pleased to see that the proposed rule finally closes this loophole by accurately defining what these voluntary origin claims mean, something we have been working to clarify since the repeal of mandatory country-of-origin labeling in 2015. If it says ‘Made in the USA,’ then it should be from cattle that have only known USA soil. Consumers have the right to know where their food comes from, full stop.”

USCA plans to submit comments supporting USDA’s proposed definition.