Ag in the Courtroom
John Dillard grew up on a beef cattle farm and now works as an agricultural and environmental litigation attorney with OFW Law. His blog analyzes legal issues and court decisions that affect America’s farmers and ranchers.
Judge Denies Attempt to Stop New COOL Rule
Sep 11, 2013
Opponents of USDA's new mandatory Country-of-Origin-Labeling (mCOOL) rule received a setback this morning. A federal judge denied the mCOOL opponents request for a preliminary injunction, which would have halted implementation of the new labeling rule pending ultimate resolution of whether the new mCOOL rule was lawful.
The opponents of the mCOOL rule argued that the new mCOOL compelled speech that was in violation of the First Amendment and that USDA's new rule was an "arbitrary and capricious" agency action that was not in line with Congress' intent in requiring country-of-origin labeling on fresh meat products. Furthermore, the opponents argue that compliance with the labeling requirements will require fundamental structural changes in the American meat industry that will lead to discrimination against Mexican and Canadian livestock. (Disclosure: I represent North American Meat Association, one of the plaintiffs in this matter).
The new mCOOL rule bans the practice of "commingling" of animals with different countries of origin. Prior to the new mCOOL rule, meat packages could contain meat from animals with different countries or origin so long as the packaging listed the potential countries of origin for meat products contained in the package. For instance, a product could be labeled "Product of US & Canada" or "Product of US & Mexico." Under the new mCOOL rule, packaging must now identify the country where the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered. Complying with this rule will require meat processors to maintain separate production runs based on the country or origin of the livestock that they slaughter, which can be costly if a plant depends on imported livestock to handle seasonal fluctuations in supply.
A sample illustration of the new mCOOL label
Supporters of the new mCOOL rule argued that the new rule is necessary to provide consumers with more specific information regarding the origin of the meat they are purchasing. Additionally, they asserted that the new rule was necessary to prevent consumer deception that they felt was present in the earlier rule, which allowed co-mingling of products with different origins.
Ultimately, the judge sided with USDA and the supporters of the new mCOOL rule. The judge rejected the argument that the First Amendment prohibited compelled speech in the form of mandatory labeling by country or origin. Instead, the judge held that USDA could require the more-specific labels as a disclosure designed to prevent consumer deception or confusion.
This dispute is likely far from being settled. The opponents of the new mCOOL rule are expected to appeal this decision. I will keep you updated on new developments as they occur.
John Dillard is an attorney with Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz P.C. (OFW Law), a Washington, DC-based firm that serves agricultural clients and clients with issues before federal and state courts, EPA, FDA, USDA, and OSHA. John focuses his practice on agricultural and environmental law. He occasionally tweets at @DCAgLawyer. This column is not a substitute for legal advice.