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Product Reviews

How to decipher ‘Made in the USA’ claims

Survey says many want to buy American, but claim not always understood

Most complaints to the FTC are initiated by companies.

Most complaints to the FTC are initiated by companies.

Given a choice between a product made in the United States and an identical one made abroad, 78 percent of Americans would rather buy the American product, according to a new 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.

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But what does “made in the USA” even mean? And how can you identify what’s made where?

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.

Consumers are confused as to why, for example, frozen blueberries from Oregon are identified as a product of Chile or why a T-shirt with the words “Made in the” above the US 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 are the claim’s context and whether it’s likely to mislead a reasonable consumer, says FTC senior attorney Laura Koss. 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. And most complaints the FTC receives are initiated by companies pointing a finger at competitors they claim are seeking an unfair advantage.

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 US 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 US” without specifying the country of manufacture, since consumers are likely to interpret a vague, standalone 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.

If you want to buy American products, these tips should help:

 Read labels carefully, using the information above.

 Consult websites that name companies making products in the United States: americansworking.com, madeinamericaforever.com, and madeinusa.org.

 Contact a manufacturer directly.

Consumer Reports writes columns, ­reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. ­Previous stories can be found at ­consumerreports.org.
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