Judge refuses to block new meat labeling rules

Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A federal judge has refused to block new rules that require the meat industry to include specific information about the origin of their products on labels. Industry groups say they'll continue fighting.

The new rules took effect in May and require labels for steaks, ribs and other cuts of meat include clear information about where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington, D.C., refused to issue a preliminary order Wednesday, though she didn't decide the overall lawsuit.

The American Meat Institute, a trade group that represents meatpackers, processors and suppliers, said Thursday it plans to appeal because the rules are too costly and don't provide any health benefits. Seven other industry groups, including cattle and pork associations in the U.S. and Canada, have joined AMI's lawsuit.

"We disagree strongly with the court's decision and believe that several aspects of the ruling are susceptible to challenge," AMI President and CEO J. Patrick Boyle said in a statement.

The lawsuit argues that the rule violates the U.S. Constitution because it forces meat producers to provide information about their products, and the groups argue that officials overstepped their authority with the rules. Jackson said she didn't think the arguments are likely to succeed in court.

The labeling rules have support from consumer groups, environmental groups and some other farmers' groups.

Under the new rules, labels must specify, for example, "Born in Mexico, raised and slaughtered in the United States." The previous labeling rule required only the country of origin to be noted, such as "Product of U.S." or "Product of U.S. and Canada."

The Agriculture Department has also prohibited meat processors from mixing meat from animals born, raised or slaughtered in other countries with meat from the U.S.

Industry groups estimate that 4 percent to 7 percent of the beef and pork eaten in America comes from animals from other countries, and they've argued it's not practical to keep cattle and hogs from other countries separate from domestic animals.

USDA spokesman Sam Jones-Ellard said the department was pleased with the ruling and will continue training retailers and meat suppliers on how to comply with the new labeling rules.

Jackson wrote that the USDA made clear when it issued the labeling rule that it was trying to reduce confusion for consumers and address concerns that Canada and Mexico had raised with the World Trade Organization about the fairness of previous labeling rules.

Jackson said it is well established that companies can be compelled to provide information about their products if the government is trying to prevent consumers from being deceived. Additionally, Jackson said, some of the lawsuit's arguments are misplaced because they are criticisms of the labeling law Congress passed in 2009, not the new USDA rule.

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