The long tangled history behind country of origin labels

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Listener and reader Helen Rasmussen of Portland, Maine asks:

When and how did the “country of origin” label and the “made in” label on our consumer goods become a reality? I remember TV commercials as a kid with the “look for the union tag” jingle which was obviously pro-USA and pro-union, but I wouldn’t have thought it was necessary. Was it in response to products made overseas? I also remember, because my parents were antique dealers, that they noticed when items were labeled “made in occupied Japan.” Is this labeling mandatory and what is the background?

We live in a globalized world. You might be sitting, wearing a shirt that says it was made in China, while browsing the internet using a laptop made in India, next to a notepad and a pencil made in Mexico.

Trade consultant Craig VanGrasstek joined Marketplace to explain the history of this labeling.

Country of origin labels first appeared in the 19th century, when Germany began to emerge as an industrial power, he said.

“So many European countries started to impose these country-of-origin labeling requirements because they wanted their people to know if products were imported from Germany,” VanGrasstek added. “It inspired people in the United States.”

The first major U.S. law that required products to be marked with their country of origin was the Tariff Act of 1890, also known as the McKinley Tariff (parts of which are still in effect), according to VanGrasstek.

The Tariff Act of 1930, which built on the 1890 law, required that “every article of foreign origin (or its container) imported into the United States be marked with its country of origin”, unless it does not benefit from special exemptions. Retailers are responsible for labels.

US trade law is unclear, VanGrasstek noted.

“What happens over time is that American law becomes entrenched, interpreted and revised in various forms,” he explained.

When are country of origin labels required?

Generally, the products U.S. imports from other countries need labels, but most products made in the U.S. and sold domestically do not (except automobiles, textiles, plastic goods, etc.) wool and fur).

VanGrasstek noted that US trade law does not apply uniformly to all countries or to certain food products.

Since the Tariff Act of 1930, “many, many other laws have been enacted at the federal and state levels,” VanGrasstek said. “Things are also changed by the different interpretations of regulatory agencies and national courts, as well as by the [World Trade Organization] in the settlement of disputes.

For example, country of origin labeling is required on food products, including lamb and chicken muscle cuts, wild and farmed fish, and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

A notable exception? Beef. The USDA exempted beef in 2015 after the WTO ruled the labeling gave U.S. beef and pork a trade advantage over Canadian and Mexican products. Both countries have threatened $3 billion in retaliatory sanctions against the United States

Therefore, beef products sold in the United States may be labeled as “Product of the United States” even if they come from other countries, provided the animal has been slaughtered or the meat has been repackaged or transformed here. But the story is not over – a group of bipartisan senators announced legislation late last year that would restore mandatory country of origin labelling. House representatives also introduced a bipartisan version of this bill in March.

Jennifer Diaz, founder of Diaz Trade Law, pointed out that country of origin labels are also not required for online products. The Senate has passed a bipartisan bill that would include such a mandate, but it has yet to agree on a compromise bill with the House of Representatives, which has passed its own version.

Retailers, including Amazon, oppose the move. The National Retail Federation told a Senate committee that companies could source items from different countries, making it difficult to label a product, The Washington Post reported last year.

Investment matters too

Not only are there a series of rules governing the use of these labels, but sometimes there are stipulations as to where they are placed.

For example, Congress enacted a law that requires manhole covers to have country of origin labeling on the top.

“The goal was to discourage municipal authorities in this country from buying manhole covers made outside of this country,” VanGrasstek explained.

VanGrasstek also noted that in the 1980s, a law required all iron or steel tubing to carry a permanent label indicating the country of origin, intended to discourage foreign imports. Delicate medical devices like artificial heart pumps fall into this category, and marking the devices would ruin them, VanGrasstek explained.

“So in this particular case there was ultimately a decision that instead of permanently inscribing the fabricated label on these tubes – which no one would ever see because they go into someone’s chest – they could affix a paper label instead,” he said. said, that doctors could remove.

The origins of the label “Made in Occupied Japan”

In 1945, after the end of World War II, General Douglas MacArthur was tasked with reviving the Japanese economy and set up his headquarters in Tokyo. During the American occupation, factories had to print “Occupied Japan” or “Made in Occupied Japan” labels for their products, including ceramic figures and toys that mimicked American and European aesthetics, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The Mercury News in California reported in 2017 that products bearing the label were prized and valuable to collectors until the 1980s and 1990s when replicas hit the market.

If you scroll through eBay, you can still find these items for sale.

A brief history of union etiquette

As reader Helen Rasmussen recalls, television commercials once featured International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union ads that encouraged people to “seek the union label.”

VanGrasstek explained that the union label was not necessarily intended to encourage people to buy domestic products rather than imported products, but rather to know whether the item you purchased was from a union store versus a store. not unionized.

In 1874, cigar makers in San Francisco created a “white labor” label to indicate their products were created by unionized white men, not unorganized Chinese workers, according to United Food Local 324. and Commercial Workers International Union.

In 1880, the International Union of Cigar Makers got rid of the “racially motivated white label” and developed a blue national union label. In 1909, the American Federation of Labor created a department to promote the union label.

“Today, the union label represents a large and multi-ethnic workforce. Although we know it as a symbol for products made by unionized workers, it is also symbolic of the labor past,” states the UFCW Local 324 website. “Even at its birth, with the struggle for the 8 hour day and the label ‘white worker’, the union label represents the mixed history of pride and shame of the movement.”

How the country of origin label is like a hammer

The question of where a product comes from is complicated, depending on the trade rules governing when you ask that question, or how you define a country’s origins in the first place.

Grab something as simple as a T-shirt, VanGrasstek said.

“Is the shirt made in the United States because it was sewn in this country? Or is it American made because the fabric was woven in that country? Or is it American made because the fiber that makes up this fabric was grown or otherwise produced in this country? he said.

Labeling has advantages. On the one hand, VanGrasstek said it could provide useful information to consumers. If it is made in the USA, it can also give a slight boost to the value of a product.

The University of Chicago Booth School of Business released a study in 2020 on the value of the “Made in USA” label. Researchers conducted a field experiment for screen protectors on eBay, finding that items with the USA label sold for 7 cents more.

But VanGrasstek said sometimes country of origin labeling can be misused, perhaps as a ploy to appeal to “raw nationalism or xenophobia”. You can compare the tag to a hammer or some other tool, he said.

“A tool can be used right – or abused.”

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