In the far northeastern corner of California, in the high desert just outside of Alturas, Carolyn Carey and her husband Pete raise cattle and organic hay on the banks of the Pit River. They’ve spent a lifetime on the land, and they’re part of Panorama Organic’s original group of founding ranchers. “That’s what we’ve done for many, many, many, many, many years,” she says. “My husband has done nothing else his entire life except for a stint in the Army. He was one of those people who, for many, many years didn’t know his social security number because he never had to use it. Can you imagine? I mean, he’s never worked for anybody [else].”
Their place is uniquely situated on one of the largest natural flood plains left in that part of the state, which allows them to feed around 1,000 steers annually on meadows irrigated with flood water from the river. They also run about 450 cow-calf pairs.
Carey is active in the cattle industry, as well as running the ranch. She’s served in leadership positions with the California Rangeland Trust, the California Cattlemen’s Association, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, among several others.
One of her passions has been making sure consumers know which country their meat is coming from, and she developed the Born & Raised in the USATM label. Carey got the idea more than 20 years ago at an NCBA convention. “People were saying, ‘Hey, we have to pass legislation. We’ve got to be able to label our U.S. Beef.’ And I said to myself as I was walking along, knowing nothing about it, ‘why don’t we just do it?’ I popped down into the trade show, and lo and behold, there was the USDA booth. I stopped and I asked them what was involved.”
She called the appropriate people at the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), the USDA department responsible for approving meat labels, and learned to not only negotiate the vagaries of the approval process, but to trademark her labels, as well. The Born & Raised in the USATM certification mark was the first USDA-approved label depicting the country of origin.
The label, which is voluntary, is verified by affidavit and travels through the supply chain, staying with the animal until harvest, even if ownership changes, as long as it remains in the U.S. After slaughter, the meat can carry the label all the way to the end user.
In the decades since Carey’s label appeared in the marketplace, the issue of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for beef has become mired in legislative and legal challenges. For a time, COOL was mandatory, but Congress eventually dropped it because Canada and Mexico sued in the court of the World Trade Organization, claiming it put beef from their countries at a competitive disadvantage in the minds of consumers. And a loophole in the Product of USA law means that meat packers can attach the label to any beef cut up and packaged in this country, no matter where the cattle were raised and the beef originated. A recent executive order from the Biden administration has resulted in the USDA opening a rulemaking process to tighten the law so that only beef products from cattle born and raised in this country can carry the Product of USA label. But in the meantime, consumers remain confused.
Carey wishes that the labeling issue could be simplified so that a package could simply read product of whichever country the meat came from, and then there would be no need for U.S. producers to label their beef. If it didn’t have a country listed, consumers would automatically know it’s from the U.S. But in the complicated global food supply chain, where many live animals and much of the meat we eat travel a circuitous international path, a simple solution is difficult to achieve.
In the meantime, Carey encourages customers to look for Panorama Organic and the Born & Raised in the USATM label to rest assured the beef they’re serving their families is really from the U.S.