Picture yourself at a grocery store, you’re doing the shopping for the next few days, and you’ve got a hankering for some beef.
As a conscientious and discerning consumer, you adhere to the principles of Slow Meat, you eat less than average, and you choose better quality products, raised sustainably and thoughtfully, respectful of animal rights and the environment. You pick up a flank steak, it comes from a grassfed cow, and stamped on the packaging, loudly and proudly “Product of [yourcountry]”. That ticks the major boxes you think to yourself, and that’s going to look great sitting on my grill rubbed in salt and olive oil. You pop it in your basket and head over towards the dairy section. Did you think for a second that the lovely steak that you just planned dinner around was not in fact from the country on the label? Did you think that the cow from which it came might not even have been grassfed? Did you consider that the label might not be accurate? Should you have to?
Well, in the USA, that’s how it goes these days. In 2015, the law calling for mandatory country of origin labeling was repealed, leading to a surge in products labeled as “Product of USA” despite being from overseas. This baffling decision was taken by many in the meatpacking industry as an invitation to abuse the system. Since the repeal, the requirements for slapping on a “Product of USA” label are really slack, as little as having the meat pass through a USDA-inspected processing center is enough to qualify the meat to be declared as a “Product of USA”. The result is that American consumers can find themselves paying extra for locally raised meat that is, in fact, imported from Australia, Brazil, Uruguay, or any other country, based purely on the detail that it was wrapped in plastic somewhere in the US.This poses two major problems. The first is that the market is flooded by imported beef, passed off as local, squeezing local producers and putting them at a competitive disadvantage. Carrie Balkcom, Executive Director of the American Grassfed Association, says that in the three years since the regulations changed, the market share for the breeders within the association, verified US breeders whose animals are born and raised in the US, has dropped from 70% to 15%. This figure shines a harsh spotlight on the saturation caused by the law change, setting a new distinction between beef which is a “Product of USA” and beef which is simply labeled as such.
It sends a confronting message about the fragility of the market. Family farmers have costs and requirements enough, the massive erosion of their market share due to, it seems, essentially dishonest labeling is a bitter pill to swallow. All of this without taking into account whether the meat being imported is even up to the same standard as the local product, given that with such lax regulation, export meat can often be the foreign producer’s second-grade or lower quality meat, not able to fetch a competitive price on their local market.
The second issue affects consumers far more directly: the supply chain is opaque and obscure. At best, the label provides inaccurate or incomplete information, at worst, it misleads consumers, hiding the true origin of a product and passing off imported meat as local. Such a glaring irregularity means that consumers in fact have no real information about the provenance of their meat. If they cannot even trust that the meat that they are buying is indeed from the country stated on the label, why would they trust that it is grassfed, or organic, or any other claim? Transparency all along the supply chain is absolutely crucial for understanding provenance and making informed choices, an issue that is now being sidestepped. Packaging foreign meat in the USA under the current regulation basically rubs out traceability, Balkcom warns, “As soon as it enters the processing center, the trail goes quiet, they get to change the identity of the meat.”
So Slow Foodies, whether you are in the US or not, please leave a comment on the USDA petition! This is something that we can all agree is unacceptable, and the lack of transparency goes against a number of fundamental principles of Slow Food. The USDA will consider and count any relevant comment, before bringing their findings before a committee to deliberate. We need to push hard, and hope that the USDA sides with reason in this case.
The deadline for comments has been extended and is now September 17, 11:59 PM EST