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AFF Sentinel-Vol 20#09-Idealism vs. Reality:

Determining What Consumers Want, Need, Can Afford & Will Pay

Steve Dittmer | AFF Sentinel

Colorado Springs, CO

Originally sent to subscribers 03/08/23

So the outfit in D.C. that is supposed to be a help for agriculture has been near the top of our list of worries for cattlemen in 2023. One concern has been USDA throwing down mandates on fed cattle marketing methods and finding another thing for government to wreck. Another concern has surfaced from them as a Proposed Rule.

USDA has issued a proposed labeling change that they think will give consumers more information. But because the billions of pounds of beef that go through retail establishments each year aren’t like other products, the opposite could happen if USDA goes through with this proposed rule.

The rule would keep a “Product of USA” label voluntary, but if it were to carry that label, the packer and the retailer would have to be sure the critter that piece of beef came from was 1) born, 2) raised, 3) slaughtered and 4) processed in the USA.

We’re not sure why a key segment of the beef production chain is not even mentioned in this proposed rule but “fed” is left out.

The purpose of this rule is supposed to be to give consumers more accurate information as to the origin of their beef at the meat case. But since over 90 percent of the muscle cuts they see in the store are born, raised, fed and slaughtered in the U.S., they are already getting what they assume to be true nearly all of the time.

Many consumers assume that “Product of USA” is an indication of quality. It really is not. The quality grade, “Choice” or “Prime” does that. “Product of USA” does not. It implies safety and wholesomeness and quality. But it doesn’t guarantee any of these qualities in and of itself. The inspection stamp guarantees safety.

Consumers assume their retailer has chosen to present to them only product that is safe to eat. They also assume that their retailer is presenting quality product to them. They tend to conflate the two in their mind.

USDA is proposing to tighten up what they feel the “Product of USA” label should mean. But the long and winding road that is our efficient, cost effective but geographically widespread and high volume production chain defies an easy solution. The U.S. beef industry produces a tremendous volume daily. That volume keeps production costs lower and prices reasonable to our customers. The ability of cattle to utilize millions of acres of grazing land, producing feeder cattle mostly in the U.S. plus a small percentage from Canada and Mexico, along with some fed cattle from Canada makes efficient use of all our resources.

But putting a label with a very restrictive and prescriptive legal definition on each piece of beef from millions of cattle -- while theoretically possible from some other system and volume, not the one we have for the foreseeable future -- is neither practical nor cost effective for the U.S. producer or consumer.

Because of the volume involved, the pressure to be price competitive and the incredibly different system that would be required to comply, the “Product of the USA” label would mostly disappear from our beef packages. As a matter of overwhelming practicality and cost, packers and retailers would be forced to drop the “Product of USA” label entirely.

Because beef is not a manufactured product -- assembled from bins marked with wherever the manufacturer sourced the parts from around the world -- there is no reasonably affordable way to guarantee a particular piece of beef in the case came from the U.S. or from Canada. A varying small percentage of feeder cattle could have come from Mexico. The odds are likely 92 to 8 or so but retail beef labeling doesn’t work that way. The retailer, and back one step to the packer, have to be able to state unequivocally that what it says on the label is 100 percent accurate. Having a label that is not correct can shut your meat case down instantly.

Which is not heading the direction USDA wants to be going.

So it would be likely that nearly all the beef in any major retailer beef case would no longer be labeled “Product of USA.” Retailers and packers can’t afford to guarantee it under our mainstream system and they can’t make a mistake.

The upshot is less information for consumers. Whether they understand whether the “Product of USA” label means inspection not quality or not, that label won’t be there unless it comes from a defined, often branded, source-verified program that tracks cattle from birth to harvest and has the ID and records to back it up. Years ago, that option would not have been available at all, except through their local producer and local locker plant. Today they have more options with advanced programs, in some stores and butcher shops, if the quality suits them and if they can afford it.

Ironically, the same fringe cattlemen that oppose individual electronic animal ID that would go part way to making such a program doable at a more reasonable price, are the same ones that say they want birth to harvest product labeling possible, like in this labeling program. Of course, they really want it as part of their no-trade agenda. They want it as an mCOOL tool to keep out beef and cattle from outside the country.

Next time: The physical challenges of tracking pieces of meat.

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