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Fight over defining 'made in USA'

New Balance, the only maker of running shoes and tennis shoes actually still manufacturing them in America, says it is abiding by the “made in USA” standard, but the Federal Trade Commission that wrote the standard isn’t so sure.

The FTC studied the “made in USA” issue exhaustively in the mid-1990s and decided that a product must be “all or virtually all” made in the U.S., with “no – or negligible – foreign content.”

The decision for the “all or virtually all” standard was made after the FTC collected over 1,000 comments from legislators, trade associations, attorneys general and labor and consumer groups, including my “How Americans Can Buy American” organization.

New Balance doesn’t pull any punches with its advertising when it claims the company’s products are “made in USA.” New Balance claims it uses criteria based on a domestic value of 70 percent, and came up with that percentage based on a mid-1990s survey that said 67 percent of participants believed a claim of “made in USA” would be acceptable if at least 70 percent of a given product was made in the U.S.

New Balance also openly clarifies what it believes to be the definition of what a “made in USA” product really means to its customers. The cloudy picture isn’t made any clearer by the fact that specific “made in USA” claims are decided on a case-by-case basis by the FTC.

Even though the FTC accused New Balance back in 1994 of misleading advertising over product content reportedly made outside of the United States, New Balance disputed the accusation, saying the “all or virtually all” standard was no longer realistic in a world where an increasing number of American manufacturers were using more foreign content.

The ability to claim its products are “made in USA” plays an important role in New Balance’s marketing strategy, and we all know how important it is to consumers. An increasing number of companies are using bigger and brighter stickers or logos on their products, proudly proclaiming that they are “made in USA” and making sure shoppers notice.

So what can patriotic consumers do while the Federal Trade Commission is locking horns with a company like New Balance in a protracted battle that to this day is still unresolved? Let me be clear by saying the thing not to do is boycott New Balance products. Refusing to buy New Balance shoes and instead putting consumer dollars into the pockets of competitors would be a bad idea since no other competitor makes its tennis shoes or running shoes in the United States. SAS Shoes of San Antonio, Texas, does make casual walking shoes in the United States that New Balance also makes, but the worthy competition stops there.

On a positive note, it was encouraging to learn of the newly formed Buy American Caucus in the United States Congress on April 15. Created by co-chairs Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., and Rep. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., the caucus will seek to strengthen federal laws that make buying American a priority, such as the 75-year-old Buy American Act.

Murphy believes (and rightly so) that not enough has been done to enforce the Buy American Act as well as update it to deal with the current competition American producers face from predatory foreign producers, of which there is never a shortage.

Jones believes “America cannot retain its status as a superpower if it is dependent on countries like communist China for the bulk of goods we consume.”

The best thing to do right now is call your congressman as soon as possible and ask him to consider joining the Buy American Caucus. Tell him about the caucus co-chairs and encourage your representative to contact them for more information about what the caucus stands for. You might also want to let him know that the “made in USA” standard should not be watered down and that the label should mean exactly what it says, regardless of global economic trends.

If we can get some congressional action on strengthening and updating the Buy American Act and other laws designed to keep American tax dollars within our borders instead of spending them on foreign products, we can clarify what it means to “Buy American” and define “made in USA” once and for all.

That would go a long way to eliminate “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” which is the stated purpose of the Federal Trade Commission. So call your congressman today, and get him on board. Congress already knows the jobs issue is the next big thing on the national agenda. The Buy American Caucus is a great way to give it the right kind of attention it deserves.