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10th Circuit affirms dismissal of beef over ‘products of US’ meat label

Lead plaintiff Robin Thornton claimed the labels deceived customers into paying higher prices for meat they thought was raised on American soil.

(CN) — Consumers can’t sue a meat manufacturer for misleading labels if they were approved by the federal government, declared the 10th Circuit on Friday, affirming the dismissal of a lawsuit against Tyson over broad use of “products of the U.S.” labels.

“Plaintiffs seek to impose a different standard, insisting that the labels are nevertheless deceptive and misleading under state law and must be changed,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Nancy Moritz, a Barack Obama appointee, in the 21-page opinion.

“Allowing plaintiffs to do so would impose a requirement different from what the Food Safety and Inspection Service has already approved as consistent with the Federal Meat Inspection Act,” she continued.

In January 2020, a class of meat consumers and New Mexico ranchers sued Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, JBS USA Food Company and National Beef Packing Company for mislabeling cattle raised overseas and shipped to the U.S. for slaughter and packaging as “products of the U.S.”

Lead plaintiff Robin Thornton claimed the labels deceived customers into paying higher prices for meat they thought was raised on American soil. Michael Lucero, an independent rancher, said the meat industry’s scheme meant he was paid less at the market even though he actually raised domestic cattle.

A federal judge granted Tyson’s motion to dismiss in November 2020, finding federal law prohibits the meat manufacturers from inventing labels even if they are more accurate. Plaintiffs Robin Thornton and Michael Lucero appealed, but a majority of the 10th Circuit panel agreed the plaintiffs’ remedy could not be granted.

"In seeking to establish that defendants’ federally approved labels are nevertheless misleading and deceptive under state law, plaintiffs aim to impose labeling requirements that are different than or in addition to the federal requirements. Accordingly, we conclude that plaintiffs’ deceptive-labeling claims are expressly preempted by federal law,” Moritz wrote.

From 2008 to 2015, the U.S. used a four-tier system of labeling, differentiating meat originating in the U.S. from meat with multiple countries of origin, and animals imported for slaughter. Under this scheme, the U.S. became entangled in disputes with Canada, Mexico, and the World Trade Organization, resulting in retaliatory tariffs topping $1 billion. Congress reinstated broad pre-2008 labeling requirements in 2015.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich, appointed by George W. Bush, joined in the majority opinion. But Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero dissented, writing the majority misrepresented a necessary balance between state and federal regulation baked into the law.

Lucero said the standards created in the Federal Meat Inspection Act were signed into law by President Teddy Roosevelt months after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel "The Jungle."

"This sweeping declaration reveals a clear intent to protect consumer safety and market integrity. But these efforts were not delegated to the federal government alone,” Lucero wrote in his 8-page dissent. “FMIA is littered with references to state and federal cooperation to protect consumers.”

In this context, Lucero homed in on the law’s provision providing concurrent jurisdiction between the state and federal government, rather than the majority’s focus on preemption.

Lucero said a label proclaiming “product of the U.S.A.” is misleading when applied to animals raised out the U.S.

"To the extent consumers are deceived, the labels violate both the FMIA’s ban on misleading labels and the USDA’s own regulation barring any beef label ‘giv[ing] any false indication of origin,” Lucero wrote. “Taking this plain text alongside the history and purpose of the FMIA, Congress most assuredly could not have intended to rubber stamp deception as to the national origin of beef."

Attorneys at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath representing the meat producers did not immediately respond to inquiry for comment.

A. Blair Dunn, an attorney with Western Agriculture, Resource and Business Advocates said he intends to file a petition for the case to be heard en banc.

“You can’t take away the ability of the states and federalism to protect their citizens from this type of predatory practices by big corporations, and that was the whole purpose behind the FMIA,” Dunn said. “We don't plan to let this go. It's too big of an issue, both for ranching communities and for consumers in the United States.”

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