District Court Denies Request for Preliminary Injunction Against COOL Regulations

September 17, 2013

By Riëtte van Laack

As previously reported here, in July, the American Meat Institute and several international meat industry organizations filed a lawsuit in an effort to stop the Agricultural Marketing Service ("AMS") of the USDA from implementing the Country of Origin Labeling ("COOL") rule, which requires packages of beef, pork and poultry products to say where animals were raised, slaughtered, and processed.  In August, four agricultural and consumer groups, the National Farmers Union, U.S. Cattlemen's Association, Sheep Industry Association and the Consumer Federation of America, filed to intervene in the case in support of the new COOL regulation. 

On September 11, 2013, Judge Ketanji Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued an 80-page ruling holding that USDA can continue implementing its regulations for mandatory country-of-origin labeling.

Plaintiffs argued that the amended rule constituted unduly compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.  However, the Judge disagreed.  She held that the amended Final Rule mandates ‘“purely factual and uncontroversial disclosures about where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered”’ and constitutes compelled commercial speech.  This type of speech is not subject to the strict scrutiny standard.  In fact, “when the compelled speech is commercial and purely factual in nature, the speaker’s First Amendment rights are not unduly burdened “‘as long as [the] disclosure requirements are reasonably related to the [government’s] interest in preventing deception of consumers.’”  The judge determined that there is “clearly a reasonable relationship between the government’s interest in preventing consumer confusion about the origins of muscle cut meat, on the one hand, and the required disclosure of specific production step information, on the other.”  Thus, Plaintiffs’ First Amendment challenge is unlikely to be successful. 

Plaintiffs’ loss does not mean that the battle is over.  On September 12, 2013, they appealed the denial of the preliminary injunction (D.C. Circuit Case No. 13-5281).  Moreover, in August, Canada and Mexico filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, and a ruling is expected later this year.  Thus, the future of the COOL regulation remains uncertain.