Judge Refuses to Block New Meat Labeling Rules

A U.S. federal judge has refused to stop the government from requiring labels on packages of beef, pork, poultry and lamb sold in U.S. stores to include more specific information about the meat’s country of origin. Industry groups say they will continue fighting.

In her 76-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Ketanji B. Jackson rejected a preliminary injunction request from a coalition that included the Canadian and Mexican cattle and pork industries and U.S. meatpackers that buy their products. However, Judge Jackson did not decide the overall lawsuit.

The Agriculture Department is set to implement a new, stricter set of country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements in November in response to a ruling by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that found the old requirements to be protectionist.

The judge said the industry failed to show it would suffer irreparable harm if COOL was in effect while the case was being decided.

The American Meat Institute, a trade group that represents meatpackers, processors and suppliers, said Thursday it plans to appeal because the rules are too costly and don’t provide any health benefits. Seven other industry groups, including cattle and pork associations in the U.S. and Canada, have joined AMI’s lawsuit. The meatpackers say it will cost the industry at least $200 million to build new pens and alter production processes.

“We disagree strongly with the court’s decision and believe that several aspects of the ruling are susceptible to challenge,” AMI President and CEO J. Patrick Boyle said in a statement.

The lawsuit argues that the rule violates the U.S. Constitution because it forces meat producers to provide information about their products, and the groups argue that officials overstepped their authority with the rules. Jackson said she didn’t think the arguments are likely to succeed in court.

The labeling rules have support from consumer groups, environmental groups and other farmers’ groups.

Under the new rules, which became effective in May, labels for steak, ribs and other cuts of meat must include clear information about where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered, “Born in Mexico, raised and slaughtered in the United States.” The previous labeling rule required only the country of origin to be noted, such as “Product of U.S. and Canada.” The industry complains that this new rule would increase their costs and become a bookkeeping nightmare.

The Agriculture Department has also prohibited meat processors from mixing meat from animals born, raised or slaughtered in other countries with meat from the U.S.

Industry groups estimate that 4-7 percent of the beef and pork eaten in America comes from animals from other countries, and they have argued it is not practical to keep cattle and hogs from other countries separate from domestic animals.

Canada and Mexico, the two countries that had previously complained to the WTO, said last month that they are asking for yet another WTO compliance hearing—and both have threatened trade sanctions, too. Canada’s threat was the most specific. Its government said it would ask the WTO for permission to impose up to $1 billion in tariffs on U.S. products ranging from meat and apples to jewelry and furniture.

Jackson emphasized that her job was not to determine whether the Agriculture Department’s new rule met international trade obligations. She explained that the department was “stuck between a rock and a hard place” because country-of-origin labeling is the law mandated by Congress.

U.S. ranchers are pleased, as you might expect.

Congress approved COOL in 2002 but it did not become mandatory until March 2009. Consumer groups welcomed the labels as part of a consumer’s right to know the source of their food, while food makers said COOL could disrupt marketing patterns.

When it issued the latest rule, USDA said it would allow six months for compliance. It estimated the 7,200 processors and retailers would spend between $53 to 192 million in “total adjustment costs” to adapt to the new, more detailed labels.

The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, which supports COOL, said if the preliminary injunction had been approved, the United States would have been placed in violation of the WTO ruling. It said COOL would allow U.S. producers “to differentiate their product.”

USDA officials did not immediately respond to messages Thursday about the ruling.

Do you feel it is necessary for labels to indicate country of origin and where the cattle was born, raised and slaughtered? Would it make a difference in your decision to purchase the products?  Feel free to comment on this blog post.  For more information contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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