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Appeals court declines to halt meat COOL rule

Tim Hearden
A federal appeals court dealt another setback for opponents of mandatory country-of-origin labeling, agreeing with a lower court that the rule likely doesn't violate the First Amendment or cause irreparable harm to the meat industry.

A federal appeals court has dealt another setback to opponents of a stringent new meat-labeling rule that has raised the ire of America’s two closest trading allies.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., agreed with a lower court’s opinion that the American Meat Institute and other industry groups aren’t likely to prevail in their suit against mandatory country-of-origin labeling.

U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s eyebrow-raising statement in September came as she denied a preliminary injunction to block the requirement that meat labels show where animals were born, raised and slaughtered from taking effect last November.

A three-judge appeals court panel concurred with Jackson that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the labeling law violated their First Amendment free-speech rights or caused them irreparable harm.

“AMI merely argues that the rule merely satisfies consumers’ curiosity,” Senior Circuit Judge Stephen F. Williams wrote in the March 28 opinion. “But we can see non-frivolous values advanced by the information. Obviously it enables a consumer to apply patriotic or protectionist criteria to the choice of meat. And it enables one who believes the United States practices and regulation are better at assuring food safety … to act on that premise.

“We cannot declare these goals to be so trivial or misguided as to fall below the threshold needed to justify the ‘minimal’ intrusion on AMI’s First Amendment interests,” Williams concluded.

The AMI disagrees with the judges’ opinion and is evaluating its options going forward, spokesman Eric Mittenthal said. The group was joined in its July 2013 lawsuit by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council and six other North American meat industry organizations.

The legal setbacks for opponents of the labeling rule puts a renewed focus on a second review of the rule by the World Trade Organization at the request of Canada and Mexico, NCBA spokesman Chase Adams said in an email.

“We need to look now at the WTO case currently underway,” he said, “and we still believe that in the end we are looking at retaliation by Canada and Mexico.”

Canada has threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs on more than three dozen American commodities, including beef, pork, rice, corn, apples, cherries and wine.

However, the appeals court’s ruling won praise from the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America and several consumer groups, which had intervened on behalf of the USDA and the Agricultural Marketing Service.

The plaintiffs “should honor this important court decision and cease their incessant attacks on our nation’s COOL law in their efforts to hide the true origins of meat from U.S. consumers,” R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard said in a statement.

The AMI and its allies had claimed the country-of-origin labeling regulation revised last spring violates the U.S. Constitution in that it regulates speech without a discernible public benefit. Further, the groups argued the rule exceeds the scope of its congressional mandate and effectively bans the commingling of meat cuts from different countries.

The law’s proponents, which also included the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, National Farmers Union and the American Sheep Industry Association, have argued the new labels benefit U.S. producers in that they give consumers more accurate information about their meat.

The new rule was in response to the World Trade Organization appellate panel’s concerns that the original law, enacted as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, failed to adequately fulfill its objective of providing consumers with information on the origin of food.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has complained that the labeling regulation has cost cattle producers north of the border approximately $25 to $40 per head since its inception, totaling about $640 million per year.

Online

U.S. Court of Appeals opinion: http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf



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