Big Meat Sues USDA Over Country-Of-Origin Labeling Requirement

In May, new USDA regulations went into effect that require meat processing plants to label not just the original country of origin for each item sold, but also which countries that product might have stopped at along its way from farm-to-store. The rules also prohibit the commingling of meats from various international sources. But now a group of meat industry associations have sued the USDA, claiming that this rule violates their Constitutional rights.

In a complaint [PDF] filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., but the American Meat Institute and seven other industry groups, the plaintiffs allege that requiring meat packagers to break out the “born, raised, and slaughtered” information on labels is not just overly onerous, but also in violation of the First Amendment protection against compelled speech.

Additionally, the plaintiffs claim that USDA has not shown any reason why such labels would be in the interest of public health or that the previous labeling system — which allowed commingling of meat from different countries and only required that the end product be labeled as a “product of” whichever countries were involved — was in any way deceptive.

The organizations say that there is a longstanding business practice that treats all meat of the same type the same way, but that the new procedures are going to require that slaughtered animals and the resulting meat are segregated and tracked based on nation of origin from the moment of birth, and that this puts too much of a burden on suppliers.

“Segregating and tracking animals according to the countries where production steps occurred and detailing that information on a label may be a bureaucrat’s paperwork fantasy,” reads a statement from the Meat Institute, “but the labels that result will serve only to confuse consumers, raise the prices they pay, and put some producers and meat and poultry companies out of business in the process.”

In a statement to the AP, the USDA says it “remains confident that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations.”

Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, says in support of the labeling rule, “When you buy meat to feed your family, you ought to be able to know where it comes from… If there’s a food safety problem with a certain product, the labels can help consumers avoid that product.”