Meat packers fight country-of-origin labels
Consumers are increasingly interested in what’s in their food and where it came from. | Reuters
By ERIC BRADNER | 8/26/13 3:59 PM EDT
An international coalition of farmers and meatpackers is asking a federal judge to rip the labels off beef, pork and chicken that tell consumers where their meat came from.
The American Meat Institute, American Association of Meat Processors and seven other organizations, including mostly beef- and pork-related trade groups from Canada and Mexico, are urging Judge Ketanji B. Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, to block the rule’s enforcement. In a hearing scheduled for Tuesday, the nine groups that oppose the rule will argue for an injunction against the mandate, which they say compels speech in violation of the First Amendment.
The timing is critical: The Agriculture Department is due to start enforcing its new version of the 4-year-old rule in November.
With consumers increasingly interested in what’s in their food and where it is from, the battle over labeling will be a huge test for the meatpacking lobby, which wants to reverse the 2002 country of origin law. The labeling rule requires companies to list on packages all the countries their beef, pork and chicken have passed through during the production process, and it originally was pushed by U.S. cattle farmers who wanted to promote U.S.-raised meat over foreign competition.
In May, the World Trade Organization found, in response to a dispute raised by Canada and Mexico, the rule created an unfair trade barrier and ordered the U.S. to overhaul the measure. The Agriculture Department then ignited a furor, responding to the initial WTO ruling by announcing in May an even more tedious policy: Starting in November, labels must separately list the countries in which animals were born, raised and slaughtered.
Both Canada and Mexico last week threatened trade retaliation — with Canada saying it would seek the WTO’s permission to impose up to $1 billion per year in tariffs on U.S. products ranging from meat, apples and cherries to jewelry, furniture and mattresses, and Mexico saying it, too, would push to eliminate low-tariff preferences for some U.S. goods.
U.S. companies also are lining up to oppose the measure. Feed lots and meatpacking companies near the United States’ northern and southern borders say the details required by USDA’s new country-of-origin rule are particularly problematic because their stock is often purchased from farmers in multiple countries. Those animals often are held together in the same area, slaughtered on the same day and packaged together.
“If I am going to continue to segregate my Canadian-born or Mexican-born from American-born, I need new pen space, expanded coolers, reconfigured lines,” said Mark Dopp, general counsel for the American Meat Institute, which represents meatpackers and is spearheading the lawsuit filed in July.
Dopp said coming into compliance with the new Agriculture Department requirements will cost his industry at least $200 million. “It adds up, between the capital expenditures, losses in productivity and labeling changes,” he said, predicting that at least one or two meatpacking companies could be forced to close if the new rules go into effect.
The rules are unfairly arbitrary, he said. As an example, a pig born in Canada and slaughtered in the United States would have to be labeled as such if it was sold as unprocessed ham, but would be labeled “Product of USA” if it were to be turned into bacon at a U.S. processing company.
On the other side are the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and at least three other groups representing farmers in the United States. Those groups, which are seeking intervenor status in the lawsuit, argue that consumers have a right to know where the meat they purchase comes from — and that the new requirements won’t cause meatpackers to shut down.
“All this segregation already goes on. It’s simply going back through and updating your labels — adding a comma and maybe a word or two,” reasoned Jess Peterson, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association’s executive vice president. He said his organization raised $25,000 for its legal fund at an event in North Dakota last week and is holding other events in Montana and South Dakota.
“We’re not eliminating anything. They’re not forced not to process these cattle. They have to just make a slight modification in how they’re doing their segregation and they just go on and process them. … The only barriers are the ones that they’re creating.”