Consumers Win with Court Ruling on Meat Labels

Consumers Win with Court Ruling on Meat Labels

By Jessica Culpepper

Food Safety and Health Attorney

The DC Circuit Court of Appeals issued a hugely important opinion today in American Meat Institute v. United States Dep’t of Agriculture, upholding the USDA’s Country of Origin Labeling rule requiring increased specificity regarding where the meat was born, raised, and slaughtered – the three major production steps according to the Court. This opinion came after intense opposition from the industrial meat industry and is a win for consumers wanting more information about where their meat has been at each step of production.

The COOL rule was in response to the WTO demanding that USA make the information required for their labels more specific. The industrial meat industry challenged the rule, arguing that the USDA’s labeling rule violated the First Amendment. At issue before the Court was whether Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel limited labeling requirements to addressing deception, or whether it could be extended to apply to government mandates requiring disclosure of purely factual information. The Court held that it could be extended, and upheld the labeling rule.

Now let’s consider the meat industry’s argument a moment. The American Meat Institute was trying to say that informing consumers violated the meat industry’s right to freedom of speech. That freedom of speech should extend to withholding information from you about your food was their right. 

Heaven forbid we let people know where their meat was raised. It’s not like any other foods have to do this.

Oh wait.

Now, the important question to ask is this one: why would the meat industry want to do that?

The answer is what your take-away should be. That the industrial, conventional meat industry is trying to keep in you in the dark. They fight transparency at every turn because they know that the way they are producing meat products is dangerous and unsustainable. These groups that stand for industrial, conventionally grown animals raised for meat consumption know that if consumers really understand their clients’ practices, they’ll stop buying their products and never look back. And protecting their clients’ bottom line, not the consumers, is their priority.

And the proof is in the pudding because not all meat producers are against the COOL rule. For example, the National Farmers Union, which generally represents smaller local farmers and ranchers, openly supports COOL. In a statement, Chandler Goule of the NFU stated that “My local producers are proud of the products they produce…They want to be able to tell the consumer that this product is from the U.S. – it was raised here locally. So the consumer has information to make an informed decision when they’re in the grocery store.”

On the other hand, the meat industry challenging the rule, including major players supporting obfuscation such as American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and National Pork Producers Council, and North American Meat Association, stated that “Sorting and tracking livestock and labeling meat by the various ‘routes’ that livestock may take on the way to market is needlessly complex with no measurable benefits…”

The Court put it mildly when it said “it seems reasonable for Congress to anticipate that many consumers may prefer food that had been continuously under a particular government’s direct scrutiny.” It certainly does, and this Court took a major step toward allowing consumers to make informed choices. 

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