BOTH sides of the controversial country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule made their oral arguments in court Jan. 9 in the latest chapter of the domestic review of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent COOL rule.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments on whether the U.S. district court's denial of a preliminary injunction on implementation of the May 2013 revised COOL regulations on meat products should be upheld. The May decision was called a victory by supporters of COOL but has been opposed by meat packers and large livestock groups.
A World Trade Organization panel found a previous version of the rule to be in violation of the U.S.'s WTO obligations. USDA's new COOL rule was written in hopes of bringing the U.S. into compliance with WTO. The latest revision requires additional information to be included on meat labels identifying country information about each step in the production process regarding where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered.
The National Farmers Union (NFU), an intervener in the case, continued to assert that the case is about the consumers' right to know more information about the meat they purchase.
"At a time when consumers are asking for more information about the origins and content of their food, it is important that the court uphold its original decision. The USDA revised regulations provide consumers more information and should reduce confusion for consumers at retail," NFU president Roger Johnson said.
In the hearing, American Meat Institute (AMI) president Patrick Boyle said AMI argued that the "trial court incorrectly accepted the Agricultural Marketing Service's (AMS) argument, which was inconsistent with the rationale offered by AMS in the final rule, that the new final rule 'is to correct misleading speech and prevent consumer deception' that purportedly occurred because of requirements AMS imposed in its 2009 version of the rule."
Boyle said AMI and its plaintiffs also contend that when the trial court accepted AMS's rationalization, it applied the wrong legal standard regarding the First Amendment and compelled speech because the mandated labels at issue are not voluntary deceptive advertising.
In their original complaint, the plaintiffs explained that the final rule violates the U.S. Constitution by compelling speech in the form of costly and detailed labels on meat products that do not directly advance a substantial government interest. They also explained that the 2013 regulation exceeds the scope of the statutory mandate "because the statute does not permit the kind of detailed and onerous labeling requirements the final rule puts in place and that the rule is arbitrary and capricious because it imposes vast burdens on the industry with little to no countervailing benefit," Boyle said.
Johnson said NFU remains "hopeful" that the circuit court's decision will uphold the district court's denial of the preliminary injunction.
Boyle, on the other hand, believes his group's view is correct and that there is a "strong likelihood of success on the merits of the case" that would cause the court to rule in favor of a preliminary injunction.
The COOL rule went into effect in November, but the latest revision has again been challenged by Mexico and Canada in WTO courts and awaits final determination as to whether it distorts trade.