WASHINGTON – Where was your hamburger born?
The meat for your bun could come from a cow raised on a Kansas farm. Or it could be from Australia, Canada, or a handful of other countries.
Either way, you might find it in the grocery store labeled as a “product of the United States” if the meat was processed in an American factory. In the case of ground beef, cuts from other countries could be mixed with American beef and labeled as a domestic product after processing.
But that is likely to change after President Joe Biden last week asked the United States Department of Agriculture to consider adopting a rule ensuring that only meat from animals born and raised in the United States may be labeled as a “product of the United States”.
“It was a nice welcome surprise,” said Phil Perry, who owns and operates a cattle ranch in Oskaloosa, northeastern Kansas, which typically has around 400 to 500 Black Angus cattle at any given time.
“It’s good to know that someone has brought these issues to their attention. It’s good to see that maybe someone in our industry is coming back out there and doing some leads.
The meat labeling provision was part of a larger executive order from Biden intended to help U.S. companies compete internationally and challenge agglomeration nationally.
The executive order issued by Biden on Friday will affect a range of industries, including aerospace and pharmaceuticals, but the meat sections could have a significant impact for Kansas and Missouri, two of the major beef-producing states.
While most of the meat consumed in the United States comes from American farms, the Biden administration has argued that imported meat that can be marketed as American under current rules creates unfair competition for American ranchers.
“Something I learned and found a little scandalous – we’ll see what you all think – is that under current labeling rules most grass-fed beef labeled “Product of the United States” are actually bred and slaughtered overseas and then imported into the United States for processing, “White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
“The President and the USDA believe it is unfair that domestic farmers and ranchers compete with foreign companies who deceive consumers.”
“BORN, RAISED AND TRANSFORMED IN THE UNITED STATES”
The pressure to tighten the rules on labeling comes after several years of advocacy by breeders on the issue.
Biden’s order does not immediately issue new rules, but directs the USDA to begin the drafting process. The breeders say they want the labels to remain voluntary, but they also want to ensure their accuracy.
“Our members take tremendous pride in the safe and healthy product they produce, but at the top of the list is accurate information… to consumers so they can make an informed decision about what to buy,” said Matt Teagarden , CEO of the Kansas Livestock Association.
“If it is to be used, it will accurately reflect what’s in the package or on the bun in the case of a hamburger in a restaurant,” Teagarden said, explaining that in some cases the ground beef includes cuts from more than one country. .
Mike Deering, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, said in an email his organization will be cautious until the rules are finalized, but on the face of it we’re delighted that the administration is paying attention to realities of our industry.
Livestock is a major industry in Kansas and Missouri.
Beef cattle generated nearly $ 8.4 billion in farm income in Kansas in 2019, more than half of the state’s overall farm production, and nearly 13% of livestock cash receipts nationwide. , according to USDA data.
In Missouri, beef cattle brought in nearly $ 1.9 billion in the same year, accounting for 20% of the state’s agricultural production and its second largest commodity behind soybeans. Pigs are Missouri’s fourth largest agricultural commodity and accounted for nearly $ 930 million in the same year, according to the USDA.
But meat processing is also a major industry with 64 beef factories and 53 pork factories in both states, according to the White House. A 2020 Kansas Department of Agriculture report found that cattle ranching and meat processing accounted for more than $ 8 billion in industries in the state.
Kansas Republican Senator Roger Marshall, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, said he supports efforts to allow American ranchers to distinguish their product on the shelves.
But he also wants to allow the creation of other labels for processors.
“I believe that several new voluntary labels such as ‘Processed in the United States’ and ‘Born, raised and processed in the United States’ should be developed to help American ranchers differentiate between the healthy, safe and nutritious beef they raise. Marshall said in a statement.
Cargill, one of the processors with factories in Kansas, declined to comment on the impact of the order on the industry.
Perry said he believes the proposed labeling rule will give Kansas ranchers a marketing opportunity, but warned he doubts this is the issue most consumers are concerned about.
“I ask the people at the grocery store if they read the labels. Many of them don’t. They’re more concerned about the price, ”Perry said.
Glynn Tonsor, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University, said if the USDA adopted a more restrictive labeling rule, it could result in higher costs for consumers.
“Almost always, if you have additional government oversight and / or regulation that restricts the choices of private industry – that’s what’s on the table there – it almost always adds costs,” Tonsor said. .
Congress passed a strict meat labeling rule in 2002 in response to fears of mad cow disease from imported beef, but it was repealed in 2016 after the World Trade Organization ruled several occasions against the United States in trade disputes.
Tonsor said the USDA should be careful in drafting the rules to avoid violating the WTO.
“My words of warning would be that it has to be kept in a voluntary space” if you want to use it you have to be compliant “instead of getting closer to the old days when everything was labeled,” Tonsor said. .
Kansas Republican Senator Jerry Moran also said the USDA must be careful not to violate trade agreements, which could hurt overseas beef exports as it takes steps to ensure more accurate labels. on a national level.
“Misleading labels undermine the ability of our beef producers to generate new marketing opportunities for beef produced to meet consumer demand. It is important for the USDA to ensure that the “Product of the United States” labeling standards are clear and precise, while avoiding violating our trade agreements and harming the export markets for American beef ”, Moran said.
While the labeling change was touted by the administration, Perry and Teagarden both highlighted another development as more important: the administration’s order directing $ 500 million in federal dollars to expand processing capacity. of meat and poultry in the United States and an additional $ 150 million to help small factories cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The USDA said the investment was a key step in implementing Biden’s order to promote competition and foster a more resilient food supply chain.
“For beef producers, access to additional packaging capacity would be strongly supported. We’ve been through two years of disruption, ”said Teagarden, referring to a 2019 fire at a Tyson Foods beef plant in Holcomb, Kansas and the pandemic, both of which severely reduced the capacity of the plant. ‘State to transform cattle.
MAKING FARMERS EASIER TO EARN CLAIMS
The North American Meat Institute, a lobby group that represents processors, declined to comment on the proposed labeling change until the USDA developed its rule.
But he criticized another part of Biden’s ordinance, which is intended to make it easier for farmers and ranchers to win claims under the Packers and Stockyards Act, a 1921 law that prohibits meat packers from getting stuck. engage in unfair or deceptive practices.
The White House argues that law enforcement has been systematically weakened under the administration of former President Donald Trump, and Biden’s order calls on the USDA to strengthen an interpretation of the law that it is farmers do not have to demonstrate industry-wide injury to have a claim prevail.
“President Biden’s executive order calling on the USDA to change the rules for packers and stockyards will have unintended consequences for consumers and producers,” said North American Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts, in a press release.
“Government intervention in the market will increase the cost of food for consumers at a time when many still suffer from the economic consequences of the pandemic. These proposed changes will open the floodgates to litigation that will ultimately limit the ability of livestock producers to market their livestock as they wish.
The administration argues that consolidation in the meat packaging industry has made it more difficult for ranchers to get a fair price for their cattle and the law provides a tool to rectify this.
Teagarden said the USDA pursued a similar interpretation under former President Barack Obama, but stopped before implementation.
While the provision is intended to help individual ranchers win their case, Teagarden said the Kansas Livestock Association was concerned about the wider impact.
He warned that it could stifle innovation. Teagarden said that 30 years ago the price of cattle was also entirely determined by its weight, but now ranchers can improve prices through feeding techniques and other methods that produce a product of best quality to meet market needs.
Mary Hendrickson, a professor in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said consolidation has made the food industry less resilient to disruption.
“This is an extremely worrying issue for us as we deal with climate change, social disruptions like pandemics, you name it and we don’t have enough resilience,” said Hendrickson. “So anything the administration can do to put us on a resilient path by addressing some of the consolidation and competition issues is a good thing.”