North American meat producers lost again this week in a bid to suspend the revised country-of-origin (COL) labeling regulation, as the full U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia upheld by 9-2 an earlier ruling by a three-judge panel that USDA’s labeling requirements neither violate meatpackers’ free speech rights nor exceed the department’s authority.
(Interestingly, Judge Janice Rogers-Brown vehemently dissented, writing that the majority opinion means “A business owner no longer has a constitutionally protected right to refrain from speaking, as long as the government wants to use the company’s product to convey ‘purely factual and uncontroversial speech.’ ” She wrote that the court’s decision “hacks the First Amendment down to fit in the government’s hip pocket. I will not join in the carnage.”)
The revised labeling regulations, which took effect in November 2013, require meat processors to specify the country or countries where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Retail fresh meat packages cannot mix muscle cuts from different countries under a “general,” non-specific label.
The imposition of COL has been vehemently opposed by meatpackers for more than a decade in a fight led by the American Meat Institute. In this latest phase, the packers claimed that COL violated their First Amendment rights by forcing them to issue statements against their will. Additionally, they argued that the rule forced them to segregate animals and thus raised their costs.
The second part of their argument is factually correct, but back in March, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court rejected it.
“AMI’s argument that the rule unlawfully ‘bans’ commingling fails at a key first step—the 2013 rule does not actually ban any element of the production process,” U.S. Circuit Court Judge Stephen Williams wrote in March, adding that, “The necessary changes to production are, to be sure, costly for the packers.”
Thank you, your honor, for tossing industry that bone.
To be sure.
The cause of the contention
The current phase of the battle started in 2009, back when COL didn’t require explicit identification of the country of origin at each step in the production cycle, instead requiring a simple retail label stating “Product of” followed by the mention of one or more countries. The earlier regulation also allowed a company to use the simple label for meat processed from animals with different countries of origin as long as the processing and packaging occurred on a single production day.