How to know which flag-waving products are true red, white, and blue
Given a choice between a product made in the U.S. and an identical one made abroad, 78 percent of Americans would rather buy the American product, according to a new nationally representative survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.
More than 80 percent of those people cited retaining manufacturing jobs and keeping American manufacturing strong in the global economy as very important reasons for buying American. About 60 percent cited concern about the use of child workers or other cheap labor overseas, or stated that American-made goods were of higher quality.
A guessing game
Few products except cars. textiles, furs, and woolens are required by law to reveal their American heritage. But when any manufacturer chooses to boast of an American connection, it must comply with federal rules designed to keep consumers from being misled.
Our evidence shows that if not misled, consumers are at least confused. Readers flood Consumer Reports with letters and e-mail seeking explanations as to why, for example, frozen blueberries from Oregon are identified as a product of Chile; why a company named Florida’s Natural sells apple juice with concentrate from Brazil; why pants made in Vietnam are labeled “authentic, active, outdoor, American”; or why a T-shirt with the words “Made in the” above the U.S. flag comes from Mexico.
Though perplexing, such words and pictures don’t usually violate regulations that are issued by the Federal Trade Commission, the agency responsible for protecting consumers from false or deceptive product claims. The key factors in determining whether a “Made in the USA” claim is deceptive, says FTC senior attorney Laura Koss, are the claim’s context and whether it’s likely to mislead a reasonable consumer. Ultimately, the line between legal and illegal is determined by the overall impression planted in consumers’ minds.
But the line is blurry. Every case is different and subject to interpretation, Koss says. Most of the complaints the FTC receives are initiated by companies that are pointing a finger at competitors they claim are seeking an unfair advantage.
When a company definitely crosses the line, the FTC’s priority is stopping the behavior, not punishment. If a company refuses, it faces civil penalties—in theory. In practice, the FTC has brought only one civil penalty case since the late 1990s, slapping toolmaker Stanley with a $205,000 fine in 2006 to settle charges involving the pedigree of its Zero Degree ratchets. (Stanley claimed that the ratchets were made in America, but the FTC noted that much of their content was foreign.)
The types of claims
“Made in the USA” claims can be “unqualified”
or “qualified.” Unqualified means that “all or virtually all” significant parts and processing are of U.S. origin. The product may contain a small amount of foreign ingredients if they’re not significant—the knobs of a barbecue grill, for instance. Companies must be able to document any claim.
Qualified claims, the main cause of confusion, come in many forms, but each must tell the whole story. Take the new iPad Mini. The packaging says, “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China.” That’s an acceptable claim. By contrast, a company could land in trouble if it said “created in the U.S.” without specifying the country of manufacture, since consumers are likely to interpret a vague, stand-alone term like “created” as all-inclusive. The FTC requires companies to post prominent, unambiguous statements (such as the actual country of origin) to leave an accurate impression.
Readers who have sent us complaints seem most irritated by foreign-made products whose makers have patriotic names (American Mills, Americana Olives, Great American Seafood, United States Sweaters, the U.S. Lock company) or whose packages have flag-waving slogans (“true American quality”) or symbols (pictures of the flag, eagle, Statue of Liberty). But all of those products are likely to be legal as long as they leave a clear impression about where they’re made.
Another type of labeling law, enforced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection with an assist from the Department of Agriculture, requires imported goods to bear a country-of-origin label when they enter the U.S. If an import combines materials or processing from more than one country, the agency considers the country of origin to be the last country in which a “substantial transformation” occurred—for example, the place where a computer was fabricated, not the country that supplied most parts.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is responsible for administering and enforcing country-of-origin labeling of certain foods. Large retailers must use signs, labels, or stickers to identify the birthplace of covered commodities (most meat, fish, fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables, and some nuts). That’s why some brands of salmon are labeled both “wild-caught Alaskan” and “Product of Thailand.” The fish was caught in U.S. waters but took a detour to Asia to be skinned and boned (to take advantage of cheaper labor) before making its return voyage. Under the law, that side trip must be noted.
Bottom line. If you want to buy American products, these tips should help:
- Read labels carefully, using the info above.
- Consult websites that name companies making products in the U.S. americansworking.com. madeinamericaforever.com. and madeinusa.org .
- Contact a manufacturer directly.
- Check our listing of some of the companies still manufacturing in America.