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USDA Meat Labeling Law Divides Groups as They Lobby Congress

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WASHINGTONAs the judiciary rules on the lawfulness of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's country-of-origin labeling (COOL) regulations, lawmakers who are working on farm legislation are receiving an earful.

Sixty-nine groups, largely composed of food and beverage companies and associations, have urged House and Senate agriculture leaders to consider potentially changing the COOL law. The 2002 labeling law requires that retailers disclose the source of certain foods such as ground meats and wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish.

Jobs and millions of dollars in international commerce are at stake as the World Trade Organization (WTO) reviews the law to determine whether it adheres to its standards, according to the Oct. 29 letter, whose signatories included Campbell Soup Company, ConAgra Foods, Inc. and Mars, Inc.

The WTO previously found the meat-labeling law violated WTO guidelines by discriminating against Canadian and Mexican products, according to the letter.

"Unfortunately, the USDA proposal currently under review at the WTO is considered by both the Canadian and Mexican governments to be more discriminatory than the previous labeling scheme," the groups wrote. "Should the WTO again deem that Canadian and Mexican products are subject to unfair discrimination, those countries will be given the authority to begin retaliating against U.S. products through retaliatory tariffs that will stop exports and kill jobs."

The letter doesn't accurately portray the WTO's previous ruling, according to the American Sheep Industry Association, Consumer Federation of America, National Farmers Union and United States Cattlemen's Association.

"A WTO panel affirmed the right of the United States to require COOL for meat products, but said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had to adjust some provisions in order to be fully compliant with WTO requirements,' the four groups wrote in the letter to lawmakers. "USDA followed a carefully considered, open and transparent process as it crafted changes to the rule which provides consumers with additional information on where each of the production steps for cattleborn, raised and slaughteredoccurs. The final rule complies with the WTO ruling and is consistent with U.S. law. We strongly support it and urge you to defend it."

The groups also expressed concerns "that language in the House version of the 2013 Farm Bill directing USDA to conduct a study on the implementation of COOL was meant to serve as placeholder language for complete repeal of the COOL law."

Litigation over Revised COOL Regulations

Last month, a federal judge denied a request by the American Meat Institute and others to preliminarily enjoin revised COOL regulations that took effect on May 23. The regulations require that covered foods disclose the country or countries where an animal is raised, born and slaughtered and prohibit comingling of meat cuts.

The case is presently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The American Meat Institute contends the regulations impose immense burdens on industry with no or very little benefit. Plaintiffs also have argued USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service has exceeded its authority and unconstitutionally compelled speech.

"The Final Rule compels speech that does not advance a substantial government interest and is more extensive than necessary to serve any government interest," the plaintiffs wrote in a Sept. 23 appeals brief, arguing that the district court applied an incorrect standard.

In a brief filed last month, USDA urged the appeals court to uphold the previous ruling, Law 360 reported

"Plaintiffs miss the mark when they attempt to analogize this case to compelled-speech cases that gave rise to more searching First Amendment scrutiny," USDA stated in the brief, according to Law 360. "In those cases, the regulated entity objected to the content of the message or asserted that the regulation at issue would chill protected speech. Here, plaintiffs make no effort to demonstrate any intrusion on their expressive rights."

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