Almost every trade association in North America that is even remotely related to meat was watching one lonely courthouse on Tuesday. A decision about a requested injunction delaying the implementation of COOL, one of the most critical laws that could drastically change how meat is labeled and marketed in the U.S., was about to be handed down by brand new U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The tension mounted. Anxious eyes watched the bench, searching for a clue. Judge Jackson peered down at the assembled legal firepower. And then she spoke. “I’ll think about it,” she said. She promised to render her decision in about 14 days.
Led by the American Meat Institute, the plaintiffs include the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, North American Meat Association, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Canadian Pork Council, National Pork Producers Council, American Association of Meat Processors, Southwest Meat Association and Mexico’s National Confederation of Livestock Organizations. Those ten groups represented the beef and pork industries all across North America - The U.S., Canada and Mexico. Poultry, though, was oddly missing.
They are accusing the USDA of illegal and unconstitutional actions that would create “lifetime itinerary labeling.” Led by Mark Dopp, the AMI’s “lawyer-in-chief,” the group claimed COOL “violates their First Amendment rights, exceeds the agency’s authority and breaks the Administrative Procedures Act by being arbitrary and capricious.”
Food Safety News reported that “Plaintiffs object to regulations forcing them to produce labels telling where meat is ‘born, raised and harvested (slaughtered).’ They’ve called it a ‘bureaucrat’s paperwork fantasy’ that amounts to ‘compelled speech.’ The rules apply to muscle cuts of beef, pork, lamb and goat meat and prohibit so-called ‘commingling.’”
But there is another side to this story. Another not-quite-so-influential group, let’s call them Friends of the USDA, asked to intervene in the case a few days ago. Led by R-CALF, an ornery cattle organization that’s battled the AMI on most issues, was a mostly Western war party that included the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, Food and Water Watch (a notorious activist group), and the Western Organization of Resource Councils.
Here’s the crux of the matter. Injunctions are usually awarded when the court thinks something is likely to be overturned. Judge Jackson’s decision not to make an immediate decision means she’s not so sure, at least for now, that the AMI group has a winnable case. So a number of people in the meat business will be resting on pins and needles until sometime near mid-September. Xanax, anyone?