Fraudulent meat labeling hurts our economy and our climate

July 4, 2023 4:47 am

Steaks for sale show the “Made in U.S.A. label (Open Food Facts | CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The United States Department of Agriculture recently proposed a rule to stop beef labeling fraud.

This is an important first step to address a problem with widespread negative ripple effects. Family ranchers like me are not the only folks impacted. Whether you are concerned about food safety, rural prosperity, corporate monopolies controlling our economy, or even climate change, this issue matters to you. Fraudulent food labeling harms everyone.

Currently, corporations can legally slap a “Product of USA” label on imported beef that was born, raised, and slaughtered outside of the U.S. if it is repackaged on American soil. How is this blatant falsehood legal? It’s because four multinational corporations dominate 85% of the beef industry, and they use money, power, and corrupt tactics to manipulate our laws.

Meatpacking executives, who make more money each day than many of us make each year, prop up this fraudulent system because they know consumers want American-raised beef. Families trust our food safety laws and want to support local ranchers. Many consumers avoid food that has traveled across the globe because of the carbon footprint involved and because food loses nutrition when stored for months and shipped long distances.

When someone buys beef born, raised, and slaughtered in Brazil because they believe the package’s fraudulent Product of USA label, U.S. ranchers lose money. This results in a massive loss of revenue to our economy, especially in rural communities, given Americans consume $30 billion of beef annually.

This rigged system doesn’t just cause financial harm; it’s also threatening our environment. Beef has been scapegoated as a primary climate culprit, largely because irresponsible corporate farming practices dominate the industry. Independent ranching, however, is part of the climate solution.

Regenerative agricultural practices, implemented by family scale ranchers like us who can’t afford to be irresponsible with land and water, actually help mitigate climate change. Millions of acres of grazing grasslands across the U.S. act as a carbon sink. What happens if industry consolidation kills the family operations that steward these grasslands? Two problems arise.

First, these grasslands will likely be lost to development or extractive industries. Second, multinational corporations like Brazil-based JBS will grow even larger and continue to destroy rainforests – eradicating the world’s most important carbon sinks – to expand industrial-scale cattle production.

We’re running out of time to save independent ranching and our carbon-sequestering grasslands. Since the 1980s, four out of every ten ranchers have gone under.

Family ranches and the vital businesses associated with us can only survive if federal reforms restore a fair, honest market. As admirable as small, direct-to-consumer operations are, they are not yet a viable solution to this massive problem. Buying beef directly from small ranchers – as a standalone tactic – is not enough to correct this rigged system unfortunately.  It’s similar to expecting we can break Amazon’s stranglehold on consumer goods solely by “shopping local.”

Please don’t misinterpret, buying local is essential. But we also need strong federal laws that address corrupt market practices by global conglomerates.

This returns us to the USDA’s proposal to eliminate “Product of USA” labeling fraud. The Biden Administration is taking steps to honor its promise to address market corruption in the beef industry. The proposed rule will only allow “Product of USA” to be placed on beef from animals born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the U.S. This would correct this specific fraudulent practice, but we must go further to create full transparency.

Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) should be mandatory so that families know exactly where their food comes from.

The bipartisan American Beef Labeling Act – co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. John Thune, R-South Dakota, Jon Tester, D-Montana, Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota – would make country-of-origin labeling for beef mandatory. This would create meaningful transparency that benefits consumers and ranchers alike.

Whether you’re concerned about food safety, economics, or our environment, these reforms are imperative. Our communities and our climate can’t survive this fraud any longer.

Jeanie Alderson is a fourth generation rancher in Birney and a board member of Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation and family agriculture group.

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Jeanie Alderson
Jeanie Alderson

Jeanie Alderson is a fourth generation rancher in Birney and a board member of Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation and family agriculture group.