USDA remains 'confident' in meat labeling law
By TIM HEARDEN
The U.S. Department of Agriculture remains "confident" in its meat-labeling law even as eight meat and livestock groups from the United States have filed a lawsuit to block it, an agency spokeswoman said.
The suit by groups including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and National Pork Producers Council asserts the country-of-origin labeling regulation revised this spring violates the U.S. Constitution in that it regulates speech without a discernible public benefit.
Further, the groups claim the revised rule exceeds the scope of its congressional mandate in that labels on muscle cuts of beef, pork and other meats must include information on where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. The rule also removes the allowance for commingling of cuts from different countries.
"USDA remains confident that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations," spokeswoman Michelle Saghafi told the Capital Press in an email.
Federal officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed July 8 in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. But the statement marks a continued commitment to stand behind the law amid persistent attacks from critics, including the Canadian government's threat last month to slap tariffs on a variety of U.S. commodities in response to the law.
Joining the NCBA and NPPC as plaintiffs are the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, the Canadian Pork Council, the American Association of Meat Processors, the American Meat Institute, the North American Meat Association and the Southwest Meat Association. Named as defendants were the USDA and the Agricultural Marketing Service.
The lawsuit was blasted by the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, a staunch proponent of the labeling law. Chief executive officer Bill Bullard noted that the NCBA, the NPPC and the North American Meat Association have received or requested checkoff dollars.
While federal law prohibits producer checkoff dollars from being used to influence public policy, Bullard said such funds flowing to the NCBA and NPPC are like "soft money" contributions in election campaigns in that they enable the groups to devote their non-checkoff money toward fighting the labeling law.
He has long accused the NCBA of doing the bidding of major meatpackers, which have opposed the labeling law.
"The only reason this lawsuit has been filed is because the meatpackers ... want to continue to exploit U.S. consumers by sourcing cheaper imported cattle and selling beef at the full price based on the U.S. cattle producers' reputation," Bullard said in an interview.
The plaintiffs argue the labeling law offers no food safety or public health benefit, yet imposes annual costs on the meat industry the federal government estimates at $192 million.
"All livestock and meat processed at federally inspected establishments in the United States and sold in interstate commerce are subject to the same health and safety requirements" under federal law, the plaintiffs wrote in their complaint. "Those products are also graded for quality according to a system administered by AMS without variation based on where an animal was born and raised.
"In short, beef is beef, whether the cattle were born in Montana, Manitoba or Mazatlan," the complaint said. "The same goes for hogs, chickens and other livestock."