Courts & Crime

Appeals court upholds country of origin labels

A ribeye steak
A ribeye steak Kansas City Star/MCT

A full federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld mandatory country of origin labels for meat and related products.

In what amounted to a 9-2 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit concluded that the government has the power to require labels for reasons that go beyond an effort to combat commercial deception.

“Several aspects of the government’s interest in country-of-origin labeling for food combine to make the interest substantial,” Judge Stephen F. Williams wrote, citing consumer interest and health concerns.

Led by the American Meat Institute, ranchers, packers and others challenged the U.S. Department of Agriculture rules that govern country of origin labels. In particular, they dislike a sweeping requirement to identify where the source animal was born, raised and slaughtered.

The case decided Tuesday forced the appellate court to taste-test an earlier ruling, which upheld government mandates requiring disclosure of facts necessary to prevent deception. The new question was whether the principle applied more broadly to disclosures required to serve other

government interests.

“The (earlier) decision requires the disclosures to be of ‘purely factual and uncontroversial information’ about the good or service being offered,” Williams noted, adding that “AMI does not contest that country-of-origin labeling qualifies as factual, and the facts conveyed are directly informative of intrinsic characteristics of the product AMI is selling.”

Congress first imposed country-of-origin label requirements in a 2002 farm bill. Two years later, lawmakers blocked the labels. In a 2008 farm bill, Congress tried again.

The subsequent USDA rules initially allowed simple labels; a steak, for instance, was a “Product of the United States and Mexico.” Mexico and Canada convinced the World Trade Organization that the label requirements were an unfair trade barrier. The USDA then cooked up new requirements that included more specific information covering each phase of production.