Judge upholds country of origin label for meat

By Mary Clare Jalonick

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Shoppers who want to buy American beef for dinner instead of meat from Canada or Mexico will still be able to find the country of origin on the label.

A federal appeals court ruling last Friday allows the government to go forward with rules that require labels on packaged steaks, ribs and other cuts of meat to say where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered. The meat industry attempted to block the rules, which went into effect last year, saying they are costly and provide no health benefits to the consumer.

In court, the meat industry said the rules go beyond what Congress intended and violate First Amendment rights to freedom of speech by forcing meat producers to provide information about their products. That information is of no real value to the consumer, the industry argued.

Judge Stephen F. Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled those claims were unlikely to succeed in court and refused to block the labeling rules, agreeing with a lower federal court.

Williams wrote that the labeling "enables a consumer to apply patriotic or protectionist criteria in the choice of meat" and "enables one who believes that United States practices and regulation are better at assuring food safety than those of other countries, or indeed the reverse, to act on that premise."

He said those goals are worthy of what he called a "minimal" intrusion on the meat industry's First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit was led by the American Meat Institute, which represents the nation's largest meatpackers, and joined by other meat industry groups. In a statement, the American Meat Institute said it was disappointed by the ruling and disagreed with it. James H. Hodges, interim president and CEO of AMI, said the group is "evaluating our options moving forward."

The meat industry has argued that the paperwork to make the labels possible is burdensome and that it's not practical to keep cattle and hogs from other countries separate from domestic animals.

The labeling rules have support from consumer groups, environmental groups and some farm groups. Ranchers who raise cattle near the northern border and compete with Canadian ranchers have been most supportive of the rules, which Congress wrote in 2002 and revised in 2008 after years of haggling with the meat industry.

Under the rules, a label must be specific. For example, it may say the animal that produced the meat was "born in Mexico, raised and slaughtered in the United States" or "born, raised and slaughtered in the United States." Those rules are a revision from USDA rules originally issued in 2009 that would have been less specific and allowed the labels to say "Product of U.S." or "Product of U.S. and Canada." USDA revised the rules after a World Trade Organization challenge from Mexico and Canada.

The rules also prohibit meat processors from mixing meat from animals born, raised or slaughtered in other countries with meat from the U.S., which was a common practice before the regulations.

The meat industry also tried to scuttle the rules by lobbying Congress to write language repealing them in the farm bill, which was signed by President Barack Obama earlier this year. But farm-state lawmakers said there wasn't enough congressional support for a repeal.

Consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest praised the court decision, saying it gives consumers more information.

"The more transparency and choice consumers have into where to put their dining dollars and where to place their trust, the better," said CSPI's Sarah Klein.

Published: Tue, Apr 1, 2014