Domestic COOL lawsuit dismissed

WTO case set for hearing in next two weeks with final report expected out this spring.

In papers filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, opponents to the U.S. country of origin labeling (COOL) law dropped their longstanding case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This ends the lawsuit, American Meat Institute (AMI) et al. v. U.S. Department of Agriculture et al., originally filed in July 2013 by domestic and international meatpackers and trade groups that sought to strike-down the labeling law that requires a label identifying where the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered.

In the complaint, AMI and their co-plaintiffs explained that the final rule violates the United States Constitution by compelling speech in the form of costly and detailed labels on meat products that do not directly advance a 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.”

Challengers to the COOL law lost three rounds of court decisions. The initial request for immediate injunctive relief was rejected by the U.S. District Court in September 2013; a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed that ruling in March 2014, and the entire circuit appeals court upheld the legitimacy of COOL labels in July. The last remaining step would have been the U.S. Supreme Court, which the meat groups decided not to pursue.

Supporters of COOL said the courts not only upheld USDA’s authority to issue regulations to implement COOL under the 2008 Farm Bill but also affirmed that COOL was designed to satisfy a legitimate consumer disclosure objective as well as promote food safety and public health. The court further rejected the meatpacker-plaintiffs’ contention that labeling meat products with factual and uncontroversial information about livestock production steps would violate their First Amendment free speech rights.

WTO case

Barry Carpenter, president and chief executive officer of the North American Meat Institute, said while the group remains disappointed with the court’s ruling on COOL, it agrees with the World Trade Organization’s assessment that the U.S. rule is out of compliance with its trade obligations to Canada and Mexico.

Carpenter said, “As Secretary Vilsack has said, a statutory fix is needed to bring the U.S. into compliance to avoid retaliatory tariffs and we’re committed to working with Congress to fix COOL once and for all.”

Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Gerry Ritz and members of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Canadian Pork Council and Canadian Meat Council were in Washington, D.C. the first week in February to meet with American lawmakers. 

Reports indicate the delegation was encouraged by the discussions. Ritz during a conference call also expressed confidence in Canada’s position before the pending WTO appeal in Brussels and reasserted the country’s plan to retaliate against a variety of U.S. imports to Canada, including beef, pork, orange juice and wine.

The U.S. appeal of the WTO ruling is scheduled within two weeks. WTO would then report on the appeal status in April and a final report could be out by May.  

The National Farmers Union sent a letter to Ritz highlighting a recent study conducted by Auburn University which they said revealed that COOL did not have a negative impact on Canadian cattle exports, did not negatively impact imports of slaughter cattle or imports of feeder cattle. The report also found that fed cattle price basis by class, grade, and purchase arrangement declined after COOL went into effect as Canadian animals relative to U.S. animals actually received a higher price on average after COOL.  

“Dr. [Robert] Taylor’s recent study on COOL discredits claims made by Canada to the WTO,” said NFU president Roger Johnson. “I strongly encourage Minister Ritz to study the COOL report, use it to inform his assessments of COOL, and allow the WTO process to run its course.”

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