Meat Industry's Protest of Labeling Rules Chopped
WASHINGTON (CN) - Federal regulations forcing meat producers to include country-of-origin labeling on their products is not forced speech, a federal judge ruled.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted new regulations for country of origin labeling - or COOL - in May 2013. The regulations ended a longstanding practice by retailers and processors to commingle meat from animals with different origins to package and sell them together.
Eight groups led by the American Meat Institute filed suit in July against the USDA and the Agricultural Marketing Service, claiming the regulation violated the meat industry's First Amendment rights.
U.S. District Judge Ketanji Jackson dismantled the industry's argument in her 76-page ruling Wednesday, concluding that "the plaintiffs' failure to demonstrate either a likelihood of success on the merits or irreparable injury" warrants dismissal.
The industry claimed that it had, for decades, relied upon two-way trade in livestock and meat products in which animals may be born in one country, raised in another and slaughtered in yet another, then packaged and sold together.
"Imported livestock are a critical supply for American processing plants, particularly those near the Canadian and Mexican borders," the complaint stated. "These processing plants produce meat products for domestic consumption and for export to a number of countries including Canada and Medico."
The USDA started to move away from commingling in 2009 when it adopted regulations that forced processors and retailers to label meat taken from commingled animals as the product of multiple countries of origin.
Its COOL regulations went a step further, forcing the industry to put labels on meat products that list separately, in sequence, the country where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered - a task that will require producers to segregate livestock.
"And for the first time in the history of the American meat industry, it will be unlawful to combine meats with different 'Born, Raised, and Slaughtered' combinations in the same package at retail: defendants' new COOL regulations ban commingling," the industry said in the complaint.
But Judge Jackson ruled against every aspect of the industry's statutory arguments, noting that they "cherry-pick the trees and miss the forest," by relying on specific words in the law and not the law's broader intention.
The meat industry said the commingling ban will drive some processors dependent on imports out of business and destroy the market for meat from imported livestock all together, while providing zero benefit to health, safety or consumer-protection.
"Because there is no legitimate justification for the new 'Born, Raised, and Slaughtered' regime, and because these new rules will impose significant burdens on and radically restructure the way meat is produced and packaged in this country, defendants' COOL regulations violate the First Amendment, which prohibits compelled-speech regimes in the absence of a substantial government interest," the industry argued.
The American Association of Meat Processors, the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, The Canadian Pork Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Association and the Southwest Meat Association joined the American Meat Institute as plaintiffs in the case.
Several meat industry trade groups and a consumer advocacy group intervened as defendants in support of the new regulations.