The days of mystery meat may be ending
President Biden’s recent executive order to promote competition and protect American consumers represents a sea change in the federal government’s posture on how businesses should conduct themselves across a wide range of industries. But tucked away among the headline-grabbing focus on Big Tech, the administration also put forth a directive to crack down on the mislabeling of the origin of where meat is produced — not just a win for domestic producers, but also for consumers increasingly concerned about where and how their meat comes from.
Currently, packaged meat can be labeled “Product of USA” even if the animal was raised abroad, just so long as the meat is processed in the United States. The order dispenses with this loophole by recommending that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) change federal rules to more strictly define “when meat can bear ‘Product of USA’ labels, so that consumers have accurate, transparent labels that enable them to choose products made here.”
While it may not seem like an impactful decision, adding accountability and transparency to our food supply chain directly challenges decades of a status quo where food production and oversight were largely left to the producers themselves.
Biden appears to understand that the integrity of our food is a defining issue of our time. It also happens to reflect changing consumer habits and expectations. I see this firsthand as the CEO of a start-up that tests meat for the presence of antibiotics and other man-made compounds, as does my partner Bill Niman, who is a pacesetter in establishing sensible meat production practices. Specifically, in our corner of the meat and poultry industry, “antibiotic-free” labels and claims are getting a closer look.
Indeed, according to a recent national Zogby poll that sought to understand the sentiment around labeling and the use of antibiotics in meat, 66 percent of Americans find antibiotic-free labels are important when buying meat. Consumers are past the days of just simply looking at calorie counts and saturated fat levels before deciding whether to purchase an item.
This makes sense. The stakes of appropriate transparency and quality of the entire meat and poultry industry are increasingly a matter of life or death. A Washington University study found that there are over 160,000 deaths annually from superbugs caused by overexposure to antibiotics in our meat and poultry, which makes the antibiotics we are actually prescribed to fight infections less potent. It also contributes to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In addition, avian flu strains passed along by livestock and wild animals continue to present huge risks to our wellbeing — a reminder the COVID-19 pandemic is but only one virus we must be wary of.
Unsurprisingly, with growing concern about what’s in our food, consumers are also increasingly skeptical about whether food producers are being honest about their labels’ claims. In that same Zogby poll, only 26 percent of Americans mostly believe “antibiotic-free” labels are telling the truth. And they aren’t wrong. As it stands, of the 9 billion animals slaughtered in the U.S. every year, the USDA tests fewer than 7,000 for traces of antibiotics — that’s just 0.0025 percent.
Clearly, there is much work to be done to increase consumer confidence that the labels they read are accurate and can be trusted and that the meat they are consuming is not to the detriment of public health. Following the administration’s influential first step in regulating the “Product of USA” label, it’s now imperative the administration and USDA focus on broadening transparency and accountability efforts to other corners of the food supply chain as well. Still, it’s heartening we’re finally making progress on a problem too long overlooked. The days of mystery meat may be ending.
Kevin Lo is the CEO of Food In-Depth, a livestock testing platform. He was previously an executive at Google and Facebook.