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New country-of-origin labeling rule divides Colorado's livestock industry

Raw red steaks and other beef products are displayed, lined up as oval cuts of meat side by side.
J. Scott Applewhite
In this Jan. 18, 2010 file photo, steaks and other beef products are displayed for sale at a grocery store in McLean, Va. This week the USDA announced tighter restrictions for some country-of-origin labels on beef and pork products.

When you see a label that states “Product of USA” or “Made in the USA” on a package of meat at the grocery store, you'd be forgiven for assuming the meat inside came from livestock bred in the U.S. You might be surprised, then, to find out the product you bought may actually have originated in a foreign country—and was merely repackaged in the United States.

Regulators at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) want to reduce that consumer confusion. USDA officials announced tighter restrictions this week for some country-of-origin labels on beef and pork.

The change will likely make labels clearer for consumers—but they could also have an impact on Colorado’s sizable livestock industry.

The new rule will require meat labeled as a product of the U.S. to come from animals born, raised, slaughtered, and processed domestically. It was announced at the National Farmers Union Annual Convention in Phoenix, Ariz., and will go into effect at the start of 2026.

The updated rule is a change some Colorado ranchers have welcomed.

“My beef is now being recognized that it is grown in the USA,” said Marie Bonds, a fifth-generation cattle rancher in La Plata County and president of the Colorado Independent Cattlegrowers Association. “Before, I mean, anything could be labeled as 'USA.'”

Bonds said the previous rule put American cattle producers like her at a disadvantage because the four big meatpacking companies that dominate U.S. meat production—Cargill, JBS, Tyson and National Beef Packing—have long been able to slap “Made in the USA” labels on foreign meat they imported for cheap. That eliminated any home turf advantage domestic producers like Bonds would have among consumers who are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from.

Curt Werner, a rancher with a cow-calf operation near Sterling, Colo., is hopeful the stricter labeling requirements will benefit local meat producers.

"You can go to the grocery store, pick up a package of beef, it'll say 'Product of USA' or 'USDA Inspected.' But that could come from any of the literally dozens of countries that import beef into the United States," Werner said. “What we'd hope for is that if consumers are able to differentiate, you'd see an increased demand for American-raised beef, and perhaps less demand for imported beef.”

According to Rocky Mountain Farmers Union President Chad Franke, Colorado ranchers may see only a modest benefit after the new rule—at least at first. Franke said that's due to the complex landscape of meat processing and markets, in which meat processors procure their raw materials from myriad sources and consumers are separated from the ranchers who raise their meat by several degrees of intermediaries, from feedlot operators to meatpackers. Nevertheless, he said there are other reasons to support it.

“It’s a truth in labeling issue,” he said. “When consumers see a ‘Product of the USA’ label, they assume it is a product of the United States.”

The new rule, he said, will align the meaning of the label with consumers’ expectations that U.S.-labeled meat was raised on an American ranch.

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A debate over labels

But some in Colorado’s livestock industry are unimpressed with the new “Product of USA” label requirements. Colorado Livestock Association CEO Zach Riley called it an “anti-trade practice.”

“It's definitely got the potential to be exclusionary, and could vilify some of our international trading partners,” he said, citing concerns that disrupting key trade relationships could threaten the food supply.

According to Riley, the rule is completely misguided. He argued imported meat is held to the same standard as domestically-produced meat, so the label is meaningless from a quality standpoint.

“It still is USDA-inspected, still rendered here, sorted through here,” he said. “You still have to meet the level of standard that makes it 'U.S. good.'”

Riley also suggested Colorado producers won’t benefit from the revamped labels because consumer demand is driven more by price than by labels.

“It's not some silver bullet cure for why certain producers don't get the price they think they're deserving of,” he said.

But the new rule does have some experimental evidence to back it up. The change came after results from a USDA study suggested consumers were willing to pay more for meat products with a “Product of USA” label.

The argument for mandatory, universal labeling

Meanwhile, Franke and Werner said the new “Product of USA” rule doesn’t go far enough. While it tightens up the requirements for labels U.S. producers voluntarily put on their meat and egg products, it stops short of requiring mandatory country-of-origin labels for imported meat products.

Franke said mandating country-of-origin labels for all meat, foreign and domestic, would be more meaningful to consumers and increase the benefits for domestic producers. U.S. meat products would have a marketplace advantage over imported meats as labeling transparency and consumer awareness grows.

“If the price is the same for 'Product of the USA' versus an imported meat, people will very much choose the U.S. meat,” Franke said.

But without universal country-of-origin labeling on meat products, most consumers don’t have enough information to make an informed decision.

“Virtually every other food product is labeled,” Werner said. “You can pick up an apple, it'll say where it comes from. Orange, it'll have a sticker on it. Virtually every other product imported to the United States, except beef and pork, is required to have a label.”

A complex backstory

But mandatory universal country-of-origin labeling remains a hotly debated topic in the state’s livestock industry and beyond. The Colorado Livestock Association opposes mandatory labels, and the practice has a complicated backstory in the U.S.

Until 2015, country-of-origin labels were required in the U.S. for all imported meats. Mexico and Canada challenged the policy with the World Trade Organization (WTO), however, saying it put their meat products at an unfair disadvantage in American markets.

The WTO ultimately sided with the challengers. By the end of 2015, U.S. the labeling laws were repealed for pork and beef products, though they remain in place for a host of other products, including lamb, chicken, goat and fish.

Over the years, there have been several unsuccessful attempts at the national and state levels to reinstate mandatory country-of-origin laws, including in Colorado. As recently as last summer, a pair of bills aimed at strengthening country-of-origin labeling rules for beef at the national level were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, one of them from a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers that included Colorado’s Lauren Boebert—although she later withdrew her co-sponsorship. Another bill to reinstate mandatory country-of-origin labeling was introduced in the senate a few months earlier.

None of those bills made it through the committee process, and any new laws around beef and pork product labeling would have to also comply with the WTO ruling, which would likely require reopening the case with Mexico and Canada.

But Riley, with the Colorado Livestock Association, is not anxious to see any of the proposed mandatory labeling legislation move forward.

“We believe in producers’ right to do what they see fit for their own operation,” he said.

Rancher Curt Werner, on the other hand, supports it.

"It's very, very important not only for consumers to know where their beef is coming from, but also for American producers. Imported beef is produced much more cheaply than it is the United States," Werner said. "Anything short of mandatory country-of-origin labeling ... is just a half measure."

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.