This week brought progress for consumers, ranchers and food safety advocates who want to know where their food is produced. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has dropped an anti-consumer lawsuit filed by meatpackers and industry groups against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), that would have denied U.S. shoppers the right to know where the meat they purchase was born, raised and slaughtered. The dismissal marks a major victory in the long history of industry attacks on country of origin labeling (COOL), but the battle to this labeling law isn’t over just yet, as the rule remains vulnerable to the whims of Congress.
The lawsuit, filed in July of 2013 by the American Meat Institute (AMI) et al. (a conglomerate of domestic and international meatpacking and commodity groups) sought to strike-down COOL, a popular meat labeling law that gives consumers basic information about the origin of meat products. The court entertained three rounds of challenges by the industry groups. And those groups lost at every round.
First, in September of 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected the meatpackers’ request that the USDA stop using an updated version of COOL requirements that gave consumers more precise information about the origin of meat. Then, in March of 2014, a three-judge panel of the court affirmed the lower court’s ruling. And in July, the entire circuit appeals court upheld the legitimacy of USDA’s rules for the popular COOL labels – rejecting the industry’s claim that companies have a First Amendment right to not give consumers basic information about where food comes from.
The lawsuit finally came to a close when the meatpacker plaintiffs chose to back off. After three rounds of defeat, they didn’t appeal to the Supreme Court, and they agreed to drop their case. Case dismissed.
Here’s the caveat to this victory: The meatpacker groups may have hung up their hats in the court, but they have another tactic in store: eliminating or weakening COOL labels in Congress.
Back in October of 2013, when the case was still open, R-CALF USA, Food & Water Watch, Western Organization for Resource Councils and the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of the USDA and other farm, commodity and consumer groups. But this legal intervention was just part of a longstanding nationwide campaign to enact, implement and protect COOL, and essentially, public health. Unfortunately, our efforts are matched by meatpacker-backed attempts to sway Congress into meddling with commonsense meat labels. It’s time to put this debate to an end.
The COOL labeling law is a commonsense public health safeguard. It’s also an essential way to provide consumers with informed choices. We can stop these corporate interests from messing with our right to know about our food, but only if Congress knows we’re watching. Tell your legislator to protect country of origin meat labels!