Country Of Origin Labeling Lawsuit Heads To Court

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Oral arguments in the lawsuit challenging the USDA rule that requires country of origin labeling for meat products were heard Thursday in the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit was filed by meat and livestock groups in the U.S., Canada and Mexico – including the American Meat Institute and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association – this past summer. They seek to strike down revisions to the COOL regulations issued by USDA earlier in 2013. The groups also asked for a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the regulations until the lawsuit could be adjudicated. They argued they would suffer irreparable monetary harm if the rule were to go into effect – but the motion was denied. The plaintiffs appealed and a panel of the appeals court is charged with determining if that ruling should be upheld. During the hearing – AMI President J. Patrick Boyle said the trial court incorrectly accepted the argument of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service – which was inconsistent with rationale offered by AMS in the final rule – that the new final rule is to correct misleading speech and prevent consumer deception the purportedly occurred because of requirements AMS imposed in its 2009 version of the rule. Boyle said AMI and its plaintiffs also contend that when the trial court accepted the rationalization of AMS – it applied the wrong legal standard regarding the First Amendment and compelled speech because the mandated labels at issue are not voluntary deceptive advertising. The plaintiffs – in their original complaint – said the final rule violates the U.S. Constitution by compelling speech in the form of costly and detailed labels on meat products that don’t directly advance a substantial government interest.
COOL opponents also argue the rules will damage U.S. trade relations with Canada and Mexico. Those nations are contesting the labeling law – arguing it provides an unfair advantage to U.S. products. Canada’s Ag Minister has said the country will seek retaliatory tariffs if the COOL rules aren’t changed. A previous version of the COOL rule was deemed a violation of U.S. World Trade Organization obligations by a WTO panel. New rules were written in hopes of bringing the U.S. into compliance. The WTO is expected to rule on the revised rule this spring. Supporters of COOL – including National Farmers Union – believes USDA’s new COOL rules did bring the U.S. into compliance with the WTO. NFU President Roger Johnson says this case is about the ability of consumers to make informed decisions on their purchases of meat products. At a time when consumers are asking for more information about the origins and content of their food – he says it’s important for the court to uphold its original decision. According to Johnson – the revised regulations provide consumers more information and should reduce confusion for consumers at retail.

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