DC Circuit Upholds USDA Country-of-Origin Rule for Meat Labels

Country-of-Origin RuleIn American Meat Institute, Inc. v. United States Department of Agriculture, No. 13-5281 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 28, 2014), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected industry challenges to a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that in most cases requires retailers of “muscle cuts” of meat (meat that is not ground) to list the countries of origin and production steps—born, raised or slaughtered—that occurred in each country. The rule also discontinued a prior USDA practice that permitted the use of identical labels on commingled cuts from animals of different origins that were processed on the same day.

Country-of-Origin RuleAmong other things, the DC Circuit acknowledged that the USDA rule implicated the retailers’ constitutionally protected right to engage in commercial speech. However, the court characterized the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, 471 U.S. 626, 651 (1985), as holding that “commercial speech warrants protection mainly due to its information-producing function,” and thus “a commercial actor has only a ‘minimal’ First Amendment interest in not providing purely factual information with which the actor does not disagree.” For this reason, the Supreme Court held that mandatory disclosures do not violate an advertiser’s First Amendment rights, “as long as disclosure requirements are reasonably related to the State’s interest in preventing deception of consumers.”

Applying the standard set forth in Zauderer, the DC Circuit found that the federal government had a legitimate interest in imposing the country-of-origin rule, and thus the rule did not infringe the industry’s First Amendment rights. The court reasoned that–

What then are the government interests here? AMI argues that the rule merely satisfies consumers’ curiosity. But we can see non-frivolous values advanced by the information. Obviously it enables a consumer to apply patriotic or protectionist criteria in the choice of meat. And it enables one who believes that United States practices and regulation are better at assuring food safety than those of other countries, or indeed the reverse, to act on that premise…. We cannot declare these goals so trivial or misguided as to fall below the threshold needed to justify the “minimal” intrusion on AMI’s First Amendment interests.

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