COOL denied

Opinion
Sep 13, 2013

This insane battle over Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) was dealt another blow last week when U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji B. Jackson denied opponents of COOL a temporary injunction to stop the new regulations from taking effect this November.

After re-racking the COOL rule in the wake of a WTO complaint from Mexico and Canada, the USDA was forced into a do-over on the rule. Mexico and Canada and the entire meat industry weren’t very happy with the rule that USDA came up with which mandates a new label that will require born, raised and slaughtered information. This new labeling scheme will be difficult to manage and very costly to producers; in addition, consumers will feel some pain from this action.

The plaintiffs — American Meat Institute, North American Meat Association, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Mexico’s National Confederation of Livestock Organizations, National Pork Producers, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and a few others — were dumfounded when Judge Jackson made her rule and released her comments in which she claimed the plaintiffs posed no justifiable reasons to grant a temporary injunction against the COOL regulations.

The plaintiffs argued the new COOL rule violated their First Amendment rights, and is arbitrary and capricious. They feel they should not be compelled to speak about detailed production steps on each animal processed and the USDA didn’t have the authority to pass such a rule.

The judge replied that it was reasonable for the government to require more detailed labels that would provide consumers with more information about the origins of each production step of their meat, and that the plaintiffs can point to no statutory provision that expressly prohibits AMS from enacting regulations that mandate the disclosure of “Born, Raised and Slaughtered” information. According to Jackson, “This omission is significant because the COOL statute does expressly require the Secretary of Ag to promulgate such regulations as are necessary to implement the law, arguing that the Secretary has broad discretion to promulgate rules necessary to implement the COOL Statute.”

The plaintiffs also argued the rule poses huge burdens on the industry with little to no countervailing benefit. “It’s compelling speech in the form of costly and complex labels that do not directly advance a government interest. Although mandatory labeling may seem simple, complying with the labeling requirement will require fundamental structural changes in the meat industry that were never intended by congress. It will have a huge negative impact on our members,” said Barry Carpenter, CEO of North American Meat Association.

Of course the plaintiffs were not very happy with the judge’s decision and have vowed to appeal the case. While the USDA was the defendant in this case, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, Farmers Union, American Sheep Industry Association and the Consumer Federation of America were granted intervener status to support USDA and have their written testimony considered by the judge.

This COOL issue certainly isn’t over; the plaintiffs have pointed out to us they do have a legislative strategy in place. First, they want to delay the implementation of the rule until the WTO makes their decision whether or not the new COOL rule satisfies Mexico and Canada’s original complaint. The other plan includes a repeal of the law in the next farm bill.

With the new COOL rule, we have created a huge problem for the feeding and packing industries, although I’m sure the proponents of COOL really don’t care. Packers will require more pens and cooler space to sort their cattle and beef. I would also imagine it could even put some packers and plants out of business.

It is still baffling to me that producer groups have fought hard to win this rule that offers little to no direct benefit and will have the government, including USDA, more involved in their business and the marketing of beef. It may feel good to have a win and look good to see a package of beef say “Born, Raised, and Slaughtered in the U.S.,” but is it worth the cost? It will also offer little in differentiating U.S. beef, because most beef sold in our local stores is already U.S. beef.

In addition, I seriously doubt the new rule will satisfy violating trade agreements that Canada and Mexico have tried to rectify through the WTO. — PETE CROW

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