WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2013 – U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson today rejected a request by U.S. and Canadian meat packers and livestock growers for an injunction blocking a final USDA regulation mandating country-of-origin labels (COOL) on meat sold in retail stores.
In rejecting the principal arguments of the American Meat Institute (AMI) and its allies for an order blocking the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) rules, Jackson handed a major victory to USDA and COOL proponents in the long-running controversy.
Her 80-page opinion concludes that the challengers are unlikely to prevail on the merits of their arguments and have failed to persuade her that the labeling rules would cause irreparable harm to their member companies and livestock producers.
She disagreed with the claims by attorneys for the challengers that the requirements violated their First Amendment “free speech” rights by forcing them to speak when they did not want to do so. She concludes that the rules compel disclosure of “purely factual and uncontroversial information,” and thus need only be “reasonably related to the [government’s] interest in preventing deception of consumers” to pass muster under the First Amendment.
“The final rule sufficiently establishes that the regulation was intended to address the possibility of consumer confusion regarding the origin of covered commodities,” Jackson wrote.
Industry’s arguments are unlikely to succeed on the merits “largely because they demand a narrow focus on specific words and phrases in the COOL statute and do not account for the broader context of the statute and what Congress apparently intended to achieve when it authorized the agency to promulgate rules to implement the statutory purpose,” she wrote. “In other words, plaintiffs’ statutory arguments cherry-pick the trees and miss the forest.”
Jackson also was not persuaded by industry’s contention that “they will ultimately lose future business because others may respond to the new labeling rules and react in a manner that may ultimately affect their companies negatively.” Citing precedent, she said that indirect harm seems “neither certain nor immediate, and thus cannot be the basis for a finding of irreparable harm.”
She also declined to accept the industry argument that USDA exceeded the authority Congress gave it in the COOL statute because it requires retailers to specify where an animal was born, raised, and slaughtered. She said that it was reasonable to interpret the COOL law as creating a retailer obligation to inform consumers of meat’s country of origin. “There are plenty of hints in the statutory language that this may be precisely how Congress intended,” she wrote.
Jackson also said that a court would most likely conclude that a ban on commingling ban is a permissible way to further the intent of Congress. “By pursuing a course of action that unquestionably furthers Congress’s intent to require retailers to provide accurate origin information about the covered commodities, the AMS is likely to be able to demonstrate that the commingling ban satisfies this standard,” she added.
Mandatory COOL supporters hailed the ruling. “If the injunction had been granted it would have ensured that the United States would be in violation of its trade obligations under the WTO and also would have further delayed consumers having the type of information Congress has long intended them to have,” said John Wooster, San Lucas, Calif., president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), which intervened in the case in support of USDA.
President Roger Johnson of the National Farmers Union (NFU), which intervened along with USCA, the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) and Consumer Federation of America (CFA), said that he was “pleased that the packer-producer organizations and foreign interests’ attempts to thwart COOL have been denied.”
The suit challenging the final rule was filed July 8 by AMI, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Canadian Cattlemen's Association, Canadian Pork Council, North American Meat Association, American Association of Meat Processors, National Pork Producers Council, Southwest Meat Association and Mexico's National Confederation of Livestock Organizations. The governments of Canada and Mexico continue to challenge the new COOL provisions before the World Trade Organization, which faulted an earlier version.
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