As previously covered on this blog, in 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented country of origin labeling (COOL) rules, requiring meat labels to indicate where animals were born, raised, and slaughtered. Meatpacking and livestock commodity groups in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico challenged the COOL requirements via appeal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and a lawsuit filed in the U.S. (alleging that the requirements infringe First Amendment rights). The controversy surrounding mandatory COOL rules for beef products ultimately culminated in: (1) a WTO ruling that the COOL requirements violate U.S. trade obligations to Canada and Mexico and (2) Congress repealing COOL as of December 21, 2015. As also covered on this blog, several states have since attempted to require retail meat products to bear a country-of-origin label.
On June 21, 2017, cattle producers banded together to file a lawsuit against USDA alleging that the agency is violating federal law by not requiring country-of-origin labeling on imported beef and pork. The plaintiffs are the Billings, MT-based Rancher-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF), and Cattle Producers of Washington. In brief, the complaint contends that USDA is required – but has failed – to mandate country of origin labeling on imported beef and pork. The Plaintiffs argue that, under current USDA rules, multinational companies can sell beef and pork raised and slaughtered abroad with a “Product of USA” label alongside truly domestic products raised by U.S. ranchers which could potentially lead to consumer confusion regarding product origin. Properly implementing COOL, they say, would curb any such confusion and allow consumers to more readily select domestic goods (if they prefer) which would, in turn, reward American producers.
The filing of this lawsuit comes just as USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue begins NAFTA discussions with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts. Considering the trade implications associated with reinstating COOL, it remains to be seen how this latest COOL lawsuit will fare.