COOL should rule the meat case, judge decides

Sep 11, 2013

Meat in the shop.
Credit BigStock image

A federal judge has ruled that the meat industry must implement a new U.S. Department of Agriculture country-of-labeling rule, also known as COOL. The rule, which the USDA finalized in May, requires companies to label where animals were born, raised and slaughtered; and prohibits meat from two different animals from being comingled and sold in the same package.

In July, a coalition of nine industry groups -- including the American Meat Institute, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and Mexico’s National Confederation of Livestock Organizations -- filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to block implementation of the rule. The coalistion argued that COOL violated companies’ first amendment speech rights, that the USDA didn’t have the authority to pass such a rule and that it offered little benefit to consumers while fundamentally altering the meat and poultry industries.

But on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson denied the coalition’s motion for a preliminary injunction against the rule, saying it was reasonable for the government to require more detailed labels that would provide consumers with more information about the origins of each production step of their meat. The judge also found that the plantiffs failed to establish that COOL would cause irreparable harm to the industry.

The American Meat Institute said in a statement that it would seek an expedited appeal of the ruling.

“We disagree strongly with the court’s decision and believe that several aspects of the ruling are susceptible to challenge,” said the institute's president and CEO J. Patrick Boyle.

In August, a separate coalition representing farmers, rural communities and consumers responded to the coalition’s request for an injunction to the mandate by filing a motion defending it.  The group's members – including the Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF USA), Food & Water Watch and the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association -- argued that consumers have the right to know more information about where their meat comes from and that producers benefit from labels that promote livestock that’s born and raised in the U.S.

Food & Water Watch said today's ruling was encouraging.

"What we're looking for with this rule change from USDA is a more accurate label that says it was born here, raised here and slaughtered here. If it's going to say 'Product of the U.S.,' if some other step happens somewhere else, then the label should say so," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. "That's what it boils down to and the meat industry just doesn’t want people to have that level of information." 

The USDA, meanwhile, said it would continue to conduct webinars to assist retailers and suppliers with complying with the rule’s requirements.