Written by: Amie Alexander, JD/MPS Candidate, William H. Bowen School of Law
A coalition representing farmers filed suit against the Department of Agriculture on June 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, alleging that country-of-origin labeling (COOL) regulations are harming U.S. farmers and misleading consumers by unlawfully allowing imported meats to be labeled as if they were domestically sourced. The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF) and the Cattle Producers of Washington (CPow) challenged the March 2016 decision of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to revoke certain regulations requiring beef and pork products to be labeled with their country of origin. The farmers claimed that this decision “reinstated regulations that reclassify imported beef and pork as domestic goods, enabling that meat to be passed off as a United States product.” These regulations can be found at 9 C.F.R. § 327.18(a).
Two main bodies of law govern labeling of imported goods. The Meat Inspection Act (21 U.S.C. § 620(a)) requires that imported meat from animals slaughtered abroad – not imported livestock – “be marked and labeled as required by such regulations for imported articles.” At the same time, the Tariff Act of 1930 “requires imported beef and pork to be marked or labeled with its country of origin all the way to ‘the ultimate purchaser in the United States.’” 19 U.S.C. § 1304(a). In response to this discrepancy, beef and pork products produced from imported livestock (not just imported beef and pork) were required to be labeled with its country of origin under the 2002 Farm Bill. Regulations following this Farm Bill further required COOL to remain on imported beef and pork all the way to the consumer, resolving the conflict between the Meat Inspection Act and the text of the statute.
After this change in the law, the World Trade Organization (WTO) authorized Canada and Mexico to sanction the United States, concluding these labeling requirements improperly disadvantage the sale of imported live cattle and hogs. Congress subsequently removed cattle and hogs as well as beef and pork from the items requiring COOL under the 2002 Farm Bill. USDA also exempted beef and pork from its COOL regulations. The farmers allege that “rather 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, despite USDA’s prior acknowledgement that country-of-origin labeling was required not only by the 2002 Farm Bill, but also by the Meat Inspection Act.”
The farmers further argue that by permitting the sale of beef and pork from animals slaughtered in other countries to be labeled as domestic meat – according to the complaint, even imported beef and pork can be labeled as a “Product of the U.S.A.” – USDA’s regulations are in conflict with the plain text of the Meat Inspect Act, consumers are being misled, and producers are being economically harmed. According to data supplied by the farmers, up to 887,000,000 pounds of imported fresh beef may be sold to consumers as U.S. products. Farmers also point to studies finding that 60% of consumers support food labels informing them if meat is from livestock born or raised outside the country, while more than 90% of consumers prefer country-of-origin labeling on meats. The complaint in its entirety can be found here.