Lawmakers want to keep bison buyers from getting buffaloed by water buffalo meat

Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Reps. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., and Billy Long, R-Mo., on April 15 introduced the Truth in Buffalo Labeling Act. The legislation is intended to prevent water buffalo products from being labeled as buffalo.

The bill provides the Food and Drug Administration with authority to ensure that products with water buffalo are marketed as “water buffalo” so consumers do not think the product contains bison, which is commonly referred to as buffalo in the United States. Bison products would continue to be labeled as “bison” or “buffalo.”

“Bison producers have worked hard to connect with consumers around the high quality of the meat and the role that these magnificent animals are playing in restoring healthy grasslands,” Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, said in a statement. “Those efforts are being undermined by deceptively labeled water buffalo. The Truth in Buffalo Labeling Act will protect both the hardworking ranchers and their customers.”

A fact sheet from the National Bison Association says water buffalo is brought to the U.S. as a whole muscle meat and reprocessed in Food and Drug Administration approved facilities but is not being processed under U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service voluntary inspection. USDA regulations require any water buffalo processed under its inspections services to be properly and fully labeled. Because water buffalo is classified as a non-amenable species under federal law, it is not required to undergo inspection if that meat is produced in an FDA approved facility.

There are several water buffalo farms in the U.S. Many raise the animals for their milk, which is used in some Italian-style cheeses, and some also sell water buffalo meat.

The senators introduced the legislation after hearing concerns that imported water buffalo meat and pet food ingredients on the market are being labeled as “buffalo.” The senators led a letter to the FDA outlining these concerns and, in response, the FDA indicated that it does not currently have a specific regulation regarding the marketing of either water buffalo or bison. The agency agreed that water buffalo should be labeled as “water buffalo” and bison should be labeled as “bison” or “buffalo.”

“This mislabeled product is spreading beyond the retail marketplace,” the National Bison Association fact sheet says. “Water buffalo meat is also being distributed to food service outlets as well. It’s important that the customers in your dining or retail establishments get what they are ordering. Water buffalo processed without USDA and state equivalent inspection carries potential risk for customers, and for food service establishments.”

In addition to Hoeven and Bennet, the legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind., Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., Tina Smith, D-Minn., and John Thune, R-S.D.

“Our bipartisan legislation would prevent consumers from being misled and ensure that labels clearly reflect whether a product contains water buffalo or bison,” Hoeven said. “Specifically, the legislation requires water buffalo to be accurately labeled and establishes that buffalo is a common name for bison. That’s good for consumers and good for bison ranchers.”

“Colorado’s bison producers work hard to grow their markets and deliver high quality meat. Misleading labeling undermines their efforts and makes it harder for consumers to know what they’re buying,” Bennet said. “By requiring water buffalo products to have accurate labels, our bill helps support American bison producers and delivers transparency for consumers.”

“Americans have long associated the term ‘buffalo’ with American bison. Some companies are now importing water buffalo meat and ingredients and labeling it only as ‘buffalo,’ which can mislead consumers,” Perlmutter said. “The Truth in Buffalo Labeling Act will halt that deceptive practice and protect consumers and ranchers alike.”

“The American public has the right to know exactly what is in the products that they’re purchasing. Many Americans associate the term ‘buffalo’ with American bison, and for far too long, companies have exploited this misconception,” Long said. “The Truth in Buffalo Labeling Act will protect consumers and ranchers by preventing companies from using generic terms that are clearly intended to mislead consumers.”

The legislation is supported by the American Farm Bureau Federation, Colorado Farm Bureau, Intertribal Buffalo Council, National Bison Association, National Farmers Union, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, North Dakota Farmers Union and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

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