Two groups representing U.S. cattle producers recently brought suit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) based on the agency’s March 2016 decision to revoke regulations requiring that beef and pork products be labeled with their country of origin. According to the plaintiffs, Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund and Cattle Producers of Washington, USDA’s decision to revoke country of origin labeling (COOL) regulations for beef and poultry products violates the Meat Inspection Act and the Tariff Act of 1930, and goes beyond what was required by a recent decision by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that sparked the repeal. The action is the latest twist in a longstanding conflict that embroils food regulations, free trade principles, and the First Amendment.

In 2009, USDA issued a final rule that required beef, pork and other commodities slaughtered in another country to bear country of origin labeling at the time of retail sale. After the WTO ruled that the initial regulations violated WTO standards, USDA issued a revised rule in 2013, which would have required product labels to individually designate where the animal was “born,” “raised,” and “slaughtered,” as those terms were defined under the rule. The labeling requirements were again challenged – both by Mexico and Canada at the WTO under free trade principles, and by the American Meat Institute and several other meat and livestock organizations on First Amendment grounds, as previously discussed here. While the D.C. Circuit ultimately upheld the compelled speech requirements under the First Amendment, the WTO again found the regulations to be inconsistent with U.S. obligations under the WTO.

In response to the latest WTO ruling, Congress passed legislation that removed language from the 2002 Farm Bill related to COOL requirements and, in March 2016, USDA issued a final rule that amended COOL regulations to remove muscle cut beef and pork, and ground beef and pork from mandatory COOL requirements. According to the complaint filed last week, USDA’s final rule went too far and ignored preexisting COOL requirements under the Meat Inspection Act and the Tariff Act of 1930. Plaintiffs alleged that “[r]ather than act with precision and respond to the WTO’s and Congress’ concerns in a way that also complied with preexisting laws, USDA used a broad brush and deleted beef and pork from its labeling requirements.”

According to the complaint, the WTO’s decision related to labeling requirements for foods derived from imported livestock, and did not affect label requirements for imported beef and pork products (i.e., livestock that had already been slaughtered). And, while Congress removed cattle, hogs, beef, and pork from products requiring labeling under the 2002 Farm Bill, Congress did not alter longstanding obligations under the Meat Inspection Act and the Tariff Act. Plaintiffs ask the court to set aside USDA’s regulations to the extent that they fail to require that imported beef and pork comply with COOL requirements under the Meat Inspection Act and Tariff Act of 1930.