Patriot Games: The Great ‘Made in USA’ Illusion (cont.)

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Even retailers that make an effort to sell 100 percent U.S.-made products run across suppliers that make deceptive claims or simply don’t know that their products contain foreign parts. The Made in America Store, which opened in 2010, requires companies to submit certification that their product is made entirely in the United States. Even so, “we’ll get boxes and find ‘Made in China’ labels inside,” says store employee Dan Andol, who adds that when the store receives such products, it sends them back to the manufacturer. Andol couldn’t say how frequently this occurs but says the problem has declined over time. “We haven’t run into that problem in at least a year.”

WATERED DOWN. Unfortunately for consumers, no clarity appears to be forthcoming.

A proposal was introduced in Congress in summer 2013 to create a voluntary national framework for “Made in USA” product labeling that Department of Commerce would oversee. If enacted, the Made in America Act would create the America Star Program, which would be a voluntary program that would identify the extent to which a product is made in the United States. The bill’s co-author, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., says he envisions a self-funded program that would provide tiered labels that indicate the percentage of a product’s domestic content, which the department then would certify. Manufacturers could decide to participate in the program, and, if so, would pay fees that would fund it, although Fitzpatrick says such details haven’t been finalized. Another detail that remains unclear is whether the program would run in tandem with FTC’s “Made in USA” labeling standard or whether all “Made in USA” matters would be governed by Department of Commerce. Consumers could face even greater confusion amid an increase in competing standards.

Like other experts with whom we spoke, Fitzpatrick says FTC’s standard lacks clarity. As a result, Fitzpatrick says, constituents tell him that they aren’t sure that they should trust existing labels. A process that includes certification by the federal government would provide that assurance, he says. Nonetheless, given that participation in the program would be voluntary, consumers still could be left in the dark on “Made in USA” labels from nonparticipating companies. Fitzpatrick says he’ll push forward with the bill in 2014.

If clarity can’t come from the government, then it might come from your local store. Wal-Mart Stores in 2014 became the first high-profile retailer to introduce labels on products that are sold on the store’s website and in its brick-and-mortar locations that tell consumers whether the product is 50 percent, 75 percent, 90 percent or 100 percent made in the United States. Although it’s clearly a marketing campaign that’s meant to appeal to consumers who prefer U.S.-made products, Wal-Mart says companies that want to use the label must provide Wal-Mart with certification that verifies that percentage. A spokesperson for the retailer says Wal-Mart cites California’s “Made in USA” standard to companies as the standard that they should use for labels that say a product is 100 percent made in the United States.

Experts with whom we spoke agree that manufacturers always can provide more truthful information, but without any independent certification, consumers would have to take the manufacturers’ word for it.

The problem is that with no defined universal standard from the government regarding products that are “Made in USA,” we believe that companies have no incentive to be forthright. Consequently, consumers will remain in the dark about whether a product lives up to the label’s claim.

Hasler tells us that no such thing exists as a supply chain that isn’t global. That means that it’s entirely possible if not likely that some portion of any “Made in USA” product comes from outside of the country’s borders. It’d be nice if consumers had some assurance as to just how big that portion really is.

Freelance journalist Sara Bongiorni is a regular contributor to Consumers Digest.

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