WASHINGTON – Earlier today, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld new government rules requiring Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) on packaged steaks, ribs and other cuts of meat to tell consumers where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered, according to an Associated Press report. The American Meat Institute (AMI) indicated it is “disappointed” with the decision denying a request for a preliminary injunction to block implementation of the US Department of Agriculture’s May 2013 final rule on COOL.

Going into effect last year, the meat industry has attempted to block the rules, charging they are costly and provide no health benefits to the consumer. These 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 without "directly advancing a government interest," the industry testified in court.

The full appellate panel heard the case after a three-judge appeals panel ruled against the industry but suggested the full court may want to review its decision. The first panel had ruled the industry's claims were unlikely to succeed in court and said a consumer's interest in choosing domestic meat is worthy of what the court called a "minimal" intrusion on the meat industry's First Amendment rights, AP relayed.

In the opinion issued today, Judge Stephen Williams of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, who was sat in on the three-judge panel, upheld the earlier decision and wrote for the majority of the full panel. Government's interest in country-of-origin labels is "substantial" because there is a long history of such disclosures, a demonstrated consumer interest in knowing where food comes from and individual health concerns and market impacts that could arise if there is a foodborne illness outbreak in one of the countries, he wrote.
The lawsuit was led by the AMI. Industry has argued the paperwork behind the labels is burdensome and that it's not practical to keep cattle and hogs from other countries separate from domestic animals.

“The court’s decision today is disappointing,” responded AMI Interim President and CEO James Hodges. “We have maintained all along that the country-of-origin rule harms livestock producers and the industry and affords little benefit to consumers. This decision will perpetuate those harms.”

Filed in July 2013, the American Association of Meat Processors, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Canadian Pork Council, Confedaracion Nacional de Organizaciones Ganaderas, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, North American Meat Association and the Southwest Meat Association joined AMI in the lawsuit.

AMI and the meat and livestock organizations explained in their complaint that the final rule violates the US Constitution by compelling speech in the form of costly and detailed labels on meat products that do not directly advance a government interest. They added that the 2013 regulation exceeds the scope of the statutory mandate because the statute does not permit the kind of detailed and onerous labeling requirements the final rule puts in place — and that the rule is arbitrary and capricious because it imposes vast burdens on the industry with little to no countervailing benefit.

Meanwhile, the labeling rules have support from consumer groups, environmental groups and some farm groups. US 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 debating with the meat industry. Southwest ranchers and meatpackers who do a lot of business with Mexico have traditionally opposed it.

COOL rules labels 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." These rules were revised after a World Trade Organization challenge from Mexico and Canada from USDA rules originally issued in 2009 that would have been less specific and would have allowed the labels to say "Product of US" or "Product of US and Canada."

Although the meat industry aggressively lobbied Congress to repeal the rules in the most recent five-year farm bill signed by President Barack Obama earlier this year, farm-state lawmakers said there wasn't enough congressional support for repeal.

“We will evaluate our options moving forward.” Hodges said.