Farmers, consumer groups seek to defend meat labeling rules in court fight

A coalition of groups representing farmers, ranchers and consumers is pushing to join the high-stakes legal battle over new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations requiring more descriptive country-of-origin labels (COOL) on meat. 

In a motion filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, R-CALF USA, Food & Water Watch, the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association (SDSGA) and the Western Organization of Resource Councils are seeking to intervene on behalf of the USDA.

The agency in May finalized a rule requiring meat packaging that gives consumers more information about where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered.

“Our interest is in preserving COOL for generations to come,” said SDSGA executive director Silvia Christen. “The COOL regulation that requires the meat labels to list each country where livestock was born, raised and harvested benefits U.S. cattle and sheep producers who can differentiate and promote American born and raised livestock in an increasingly international supermarket meat case.”

The regulations were ment to bring the United States into compliance with international standards following a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling last year that previous labeling practices were unfair to Mexico and Canada. 

The two counties, the United States’s top two meat trading partners, could retaliate with damaging tariffs if the WTO determines the new rules do not meet international standards.

But meat processing and packing industry groups from all three countries are challenging the regulations in court, saying they would cripple business and violate First Amendment protections from compelled speech. They argue the rules would require costly labeling systems on meat that would not directly further a government interest.

“The costs associated with this new inefficient process will drive some processors dependent on imports out of business and destroy the market for meat from imported livestock,” the industry groups charge in a lawsuit filed federal district court in Washington, D.C.

The American Association of Meat Processors, the American Meat Institute, 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 filed the suit in July.

Now come the farmer, rancher and consumer groups, who are asking the court to allow them to join the case in defense of the rules. They contest the meatpackers’ free-speech argument.

“The meatpackers are demanding a First Amendment right to deceive consumers by insisting on vague and misleading labels that do not let consumers choose all-American beef, pork and lamb products,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter.

The motion can be found here. The meatpackers’ motion for an injunction blocking the COOL rules from taking effect is available here.