What does ‘Made in the USA’ really mean?

We’ve been hearing a lot of talk about the Confederate flag, but earlier this month, a reader emailed about the other red, white and blue flag. Almost without fail around July 4, someone asks why he/she can’t find an American flag that is actually made in America.

We’ve written about that time and again, so I won’t go there. Instead, I thought it would be a good time for a refresher on exactly what “Made in America” means and why it is so easy for consumers to get duped.


For starters, the correct phrasing is “Made in the USA,” according to the Federal Trade Commission. Companies do not have to apply to the FTC to use “Made in the USA” on products or in advertising, but if they are challenged on it, they have to back up their claims. The FTC can bring law enforcement actions against companies that are misusing the claim, but of course, this may happen only if consumers are reporting the offenders. (You can call 1-877-382-4357 or use the complaint form online at www.ftc.gov.)

Under FTC standards, “all or virtually all” of a product with a “Made in the USA” label must be of U.S. origin. That means significant parts and processing have to come from the U.S. Any foreign content should be minimal. If this doesn’t apply, then the company should be clearly telling consumers exactly where certain parts or processes are completed.

It’s easy for consumers to evaluate these claims when looking at clothing or cars as federal laws require makers of these products to identify the country where they are processed or manufactured.

On clothing, look for the information at the neckline or a tag inside or outside of the garment.

For cars made on or after Oct. 1, 1994, you will find labels telling you where the car was assembled, the percentage of equipment that originated in the U.S. and Canada, and the country of origin of the engine and transmission. I wish I had known that before purchasing my dog of a car that has too many parts from Mexico.

Things get murky when you start talking about other products. For example, the FTC says a propane BBQ grill with knobs and tubing imported from Mexico can claim to be made in the USA because knobs and tubing make up a small portion of the total manufacturing cost and are insignificant parts of the finished product.

However, a table lamp with U.S.-made parts that is assembled in the U.S. but has an imported base is not made in the USA, because the base isn’t far enough from the manufacturing process of the finished product and the base is an important part of the lamp.

Last year, the FTC took action against an Ohio-based company that was churning out “Made in the USA” labels and selling them to manufacturers who would put them on products without any independent certification that federal standards were being met. So you can see how easy it is to be fooled.

For shoppers who want to support American goods, it can be a challenge. One route is to buy local. If you shop the local artist markets and collectives, not only can you reasonably assume the products were made in America, you may also have access to the maker and can ask for details on the origin of raw materials, production and assembly.

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