USDA clarifies misleading ‘Product of USA’ food label

According to a 2022 survey by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), only 16% of adults who regularly buy groceries understand what standards meat, poultry and eggs must follow to earn the claim “Product of USA” on their packaging. I was not one of them until recently.

I believed the label indicated the products came from animals that came from American farms. I was startled to learn these products were processed in the U.S. but could have originated from other countries.

Clearer labels can make American consumers feel safer as they peruse the aisles. Photo courtesy of Anthony Albright, Flickr

On March 6, USDA officials came to agree that the current requirements lead to misinterpretation and proposed new ones. The Associated Press reported that, if finalized, the updated rules would permit the phrase to be used only on the packaging of meat, poultry and eggs that “come from animals ‘born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the United States.’”

The article went on to summarize how overall, less than 6% of red meat and poultry consumed in the U.S. are imported. Within that, 12% of beef comes from other countries.

According to the Agricultural Economic Insights, 58 pounds of beef were consumed per capita in the U.S. in 2020. An American who regularly eats beef may have unwittingly consumed about seven pounds from cattle raised in another country, one that could have different regulations for animal feed and medicine.

I agree with the reasoning behind the proposed requirements. Food labels should be self-explanatory instead of requiring consumers to memorize a list of regulations.

In addition to consumers, I believe American farmers can benefit from the new requirements. People who want American products will increase the demand for meat, poultry and eggs from livestock that were born and raised on farms within this country.

A growing number of Americans are declining to purchase animal products for a variety of reasons, from distrust of the food system to disapproval of how farm-raised animals are treated.

Junior environmental science major Jenete Tonuzi raises hens and enjoys the eggs they lay. “I think people should be in the know of where their food is being raised for health and ethical reasons. I only eat eggs that I raise myself for this reason. I like to know that my hens are up to my standards, health and happiness-wise.”

The proposed requirements are a step in the right direction towards building a more honest food system, but more change is needed. The Humane Society has published a handy guide for other labels commonly seen on animal products. A quick read proves many are in need of clarification.

“Natural” and “Naturally Raised” are not regulated labels. A product does not have to abide by any regulations to use these terms in their advertising. “Humanely Raised” also has not been defined by the USDA, but some organizations like Certified Humane offer their own criteria. The term only carries weight if it is next to the logo of such an organization, and the requirements associated with it can vary between organizations.

The proposed requirements are a step in the right direction towards building a more honest food system, but more change is needed.

If you eat animal products that you have not raised yourself, you experience a level of disconnection from the source. This is a simple truth for our industrialized society. However, accurate labels on the products we buy can fill some of the gaps.

Featured photo courtesy of KOMUnews, Flickr