The "Product of the USA" Paradox

September 10, 2018

Losing the gamble. It’s a feeling every farmer has experienced.

 

Standing there in my farmhouse kitchen, I stared disbelievingly at the check in my hand, my stomach rolling with nerves and eyes fighting back tears. In the next room my two young boys were laughing, oblivious to the internal turmoil underway just a few feet away.

 

We’d needed a break. No such luck.

 

Even as we had sorted the two beef cows out from the herd, my husband and I knew they wouldn’t bring top dollar. But we also knew the pastures had dried up from drought, and that same dry weather meant we likely are going to be pinching pennies to buy enough hay to get the herd through winter.

 

As we shut the door on the cattle trailer, we peeked in at the pair of cull cows, pondering if we were making the right decision and all the while knowing that we really didn’t have much choice. Farming is a game of tough calls and big risks. But running out of hay mid-winter was a risk we didn’t want to take, and, to be honest, we could use the cash to help cover what hay we needed to still buy.

 

I knew other farmers were likely mirroring our actions, making the same trek to the livestock market. The markets were flooding as folks made a gamble similar to ours – sell a few head or face feed shortages. Knowing that, I had braced for the blow as I tore at the envelope flap on my way in from the mailbox.

 

But it still hit like a kick in the guts.

 

The check came in at $493.34 for the two cows, 25 cents per pound for one and 30 cents for pound on the other. Last fall, when my husband and I and our two young boys had excitedly picked out the animals that would start our herd, you couldn’t touch a beef cow for less than $1,200.

 

But that’s the game then, isn’t it? Surviving on this rollercoaster of the weather and other mysterious market influences. 

 

Needless to say we’ll be trying to direct-market more of our meat to hedge this risk.

 

Frustrating to me, though, is the fact that, when marketed through traditional channels, the meat from our cows – born, bred and raised here in Wisconsin – has no edge in the marketplace over beef imports that are pouring into our country from overseas.

 

When you pick up a package of meat at the grocery store that proudly states “Product of the U.S.A,” do you assume that beef was actually raised in the good ol’ USA? Not necessarily so.

 

You see, there’s a loophole. And that loophole is slowly and painfully pushing American family farmers out of business. Current federal meat label standards allow products from animals born, raised or slaughtered outside of the United States to carry the “Products of the U.S.A.” label, provided it passes through a USDA-inspected plant. That means the hamburger you bought, thinking you were supporting U.S. farmers could have come from … well just about anywhere.

 

Misleading, isn’t it?

 

National Farmers Union has been pushing for these labeling standards to be changed immediately. In August, the family farm organization wrote to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in support of a petition by the Organization for Competitive Markets and American Grassfed Association, which urged that beef be of domestic origin to be eligible for the “Product of the U.S.A.” label.

 

Why should you care about what happens to family farmers like me? Two words: Agricultural consolidation.

Over the past few decades, the U.S. has experienced incredible – and deeply concerning – consolidation in agricultural sectors. Today, only four multinational companies – Cargill, Tyson, JBS and National Beef – control over 80 percent of the American beef market.

 

Since 2014, beef producers have seen income decline by 50 percent. Can you imagine your paycheck being cut in half like that?

 

Maybe that makes you wonder why farmers like me are out here rolling the dice? We play the game because we deeply believe in the importance of family farms for strong food economies and our rural communities. My husband and I returned to my family farm because we feel a strong tie to the land and a desire to protect it for future generations. We dare to gamble because we believe in this way of life and want to raise our children close to the land and with a strong work ethic. And we believe that in a world where something as clear-cut as “Product of the U.S.A.” is being watered down, it’s important for there to be family farmers like us safeguarding our food system and providing an alternative to this sad status quo that has become the American food system.

 

Please join me in speaking out on this issue. To me it’s just common sense that the “Product of the U.S.A.” label be reserved only for meat and meat products derived from animals born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the United States. The USDA is accepting comments on the 'Product of the U.S.A' labeling through Sept. 17. To comment or view the petition and comments, visit: https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=FSIS-2018-0024.

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