‘Slaughtered in the U.S.A.’ meat labeling rule draws fresh legal attack

Nine meat processing and packing trade groups from the United States, Canada and Mexico filed the request for a preliminary injunction stopping the new country-of-origin labeling (COOL) standards from taking effect. The industry groups argue the injunction is warranted because they are likely ultimately to prevail in a lawsuit challenging the Agriculture Department rule. 

“But if it is not enjoined in the meantime, the Final Rule will irreparably harm meat-industry participants,” the groups contend in the 55-page motion filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “Plaintiffs are trade organizations that represent regulated entities facing immediate and substantial burdens and costs under the Final Rule.”

Issued in March and finalized in May, the COOL regulations require that meat packaging give more information about where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered. Under the rule, the label on a cut of beef could theoretically read “Born in Mexico, raised in Canada, slaughtered in the U.S.A.”

The regulations serve two purposes: to provide consumers with more information, and to bring the United States in compliance with international standards. The World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled last year that previous labeling practices were unfair to Mexico and Canada.

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

Throughout the rule-making process, industry groups urged scrapping COOL labels altogether. The new rules, they said, would force meat-packers to implement new livestock segregation, record keeping and packaging practices, costing millions of dollars. 

Dropping the regulations, they argued, would save the industry from serious pain and satisfy the WTO. 

The WTO is expected to weigh in on the new labeling rules sometime this fall. 

While the parties await a decision, the industry groups filed a lawsuit against the USDA in July, seeking to strike down the regulations.

The suit argues that the rule violates businesses’ First Amendment protection from compelled speech, since they would require costly labeling systems on meat that would not directly further a government interest.

The groups also argue the rule exceeds the USDA’s authority.