SPOKANE — A U.S. district judge heard arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit two rancher organizations brought against the USDA seeking to force meatpackers to retain the identity of foreign beef and pork all the way to the grocery store.
Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson heard from attorneys for R-CALF, Cattle Producers of Washington and USDA March 13 in the Eastern District of Washington court in Spokane. Both sides are seeking a summary judgment, meaning they are asking the judge to rule on the case as a matter of law before it goes to trial.
In the lawsuit, the cattle organizations argue that the Federal Meat Inspection Act incorporates Tariff Act requirements, including one that states certain imported meats must bear country-of-origin labels through to retail, and that USDA’s failure to enforce that is “unlawful,” said David Muraskin, food project attorney with the nonprofit Public Justice law firm, which represents R-CALF and the Cattle Producers of Washington.
They argue that the USDA allows meatpackers to reclassify foreign meat as a domestic product by rewrapping it.
The federal government argued that Congress did not want to require USDA to enforce the Tariff Act, Muraskin said. The Tariff Act is overseen by customs and border patrol, while the Meat Inspection Act is overseen by USDA, Muraskin said.
“I think consumers want to know where their food came from, so it’s interesting to me the government is in a position where they are trying to assist the meat companies in hiding that information,” said Scott Nielsen, CPOW president and a Kettle Falls, Wash., rancher.
“What is so startling about this case is that the Trump administration ran on helping American producers,” Muraskin said.
The rule would be “the easiest thing possible to do” to help American producers, he said. “We’re just saying, ‘Enforce the rule as written.’”
Muraskin said the timeline for Peterson’s ruling is uncertain, but likely to take least a month or two.
“This court is very efficient, so we’re hopeful, but you never can tell,” he said.
“I think a judge’s job is to look out for citizens and consumers, and I think that puts us on the same side as the judge,” Nielsen said.