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Meat Groups Challenge USDA 'Country of Original Labeling' Rule

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WASHINGTONThe meat industry on Monday challenged government regulations that impose "country of origin labeling" (COOL) requirements.

The 107-year-old American Meat Institute and seven other organizations contend the regulations are arbitrary and capricious, violate the First Amendment and exceed the authority of the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

At issue are label regulations that require certain meats specify the country where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. For instance, as AMS explains, one label might state, "Born in Mexico, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States." AMS issued the rule in May, modifying the labeling provisions for muscle cut commodities under its COOL program.

The rule also prohibits comingling of meat cuts. That means meats that derive from different countries cannot be combined in the same package for retail, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, contends the rule is onerous. It not only fails to offer any public health or food-safety benefits, the government estimates the rule could impose up to roughly $192 million in costs on the meat industry, Hogan Lovells lawyers representing the plaintiffs wrote in the complaint.

AMI, however, stated the costs of implementing the rule could be as low as $53.1 million with a midpoint estimated cost of $123.3 million.

According to the complaint, beef and pork animals that come from outside the country comprise 4-7% of the total U.S. beef and pork production. Border states and certain regions, such as Arizona, Texas and the Northwest, are more heavily reliant on animals in Canada and Mexico, the complaint stated.

"The ban on comingling will choke the supply chain at the point of importation," the plaintiffs' lawyers stated in the 23-page complaint. "Under the new rule, once animals arrive in the United States from Canada or Mexico, United States producers and processors will be required to segregate animals first according to where they were born and then again according to where they were raised. The meat from those animals must remain segregated as it is produced, stored, packaged, and labeled. The costs associated with this new inefficient process will drive some processors dependent on imports out of business and destroy the market for meat from imported livestock."

Samuel Jones-Ellard, a spokesperson for the Agriculture Marketing Service, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Commenting on the rule when it was issued, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated: "USDA remains confident that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations."

Although the final rule went into effect on May 23, 2013, AMS acknowledged that some companies would need time to comply with it. The agency stated it would conduct "an industry education and outreach program" in connection with the requirements over a six-month period.

Plaintiffs in the case include the American Meat Institute, American Association of Meat Processors, Canadian Cattlemen's Association, Canadian Pork Council, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, North American Meat Association and Southwest Meat Association. USDA and AMS have been named as defendants along with Vilsack and Anne Alonzo, who serves as AMS' Administrator.

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