Opponents who could not see the issue more differently have nonetheless put the decision in the hands of a federal judge who heard the arguments last month, and she has not yet decided.  At issue is whether USDA was wrong to remove mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements after it was instructed by Congressional amendment to do. Congress first enacted COOL in 2002.

An amendment in 2016 eliminated the mandatory requirements for beef and pork.

Congress backed off after the World Trade Organization (WTO) found the mandatory labeling to be in conflict with trade agreements.  Canada and Mexico could have imposed more than $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exporters had Congress not taken the action.

The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF)  and Cattle Producers of Washington State sued Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue last June, seeking to reinstate mandatory COOL for beef and pork. Led by attorney David S. Muraskin from Public Justice, the rancher organizations asked for a summary judgment in their favor last November.

Department of Justice (DOJ) trial attorney Cesar A. Lopez-Morales in February asked for a summary judgment upholding USDA’s action. Federal Judge Rosanna Malouf-Peterson heard oral arguments from Muraskin and Lopez-Morales for one hour and five minutes on March 13.

Malouf-Peterson, a former assistant law professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, has not yet ruled on the case. She was appointed to the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington by President Barack Obama in 2009.

The ranch groups allege that USDA is knowingly violating U.S. law by not requiring meatpackers to carry forward the country-of-origin labels that are on the packages and containers when meat is imported, so that origin information is passed along to consumers rather than stripped off the products. The plaintiffs allege that this allows multinational meatpackers to reclassify foreign meat as a domestic product even if all the meatpackers do is unwrap and rewrap the imported product.

Muraskin argued that the court should undo this unlawful labeling regime by compelling the USDA to comply with Congress’s plain directive that USDA should enforce the import labeling laws — the same laws that apply to all other products— on beef and pork. This will have the effect of allowing cattle producers to receive increased compensation for their cattle when they can market their product exclusively as being a product of the U.S.A.

DOJ’s Lopez-Morales could not see it more differently. He questions whether the cattlemen even have the standing to bring the lawsuit. USDA acted with “clear congressional directive” and he says if anyone has a problem with that they should take it up with Congress.

“Even if this evidence was sufficient to establish standing at the summary judgment stage, plaintiffs’ members cannot show that their alleged financial injuries are fairly traceable to USDA,” Lopez-Morales writes. 

“Plaintiffs’ members alleged financial harm is not attributable to USDA, but rather to Congress’s enactment of the 2016 (congressional appropriation) which amended the AMA to remove COOL for beef and pork.”

The DOJ attorney says the cattlemen’s argument based on the Tariff Act is flawed because “Congress expressly directed the removal of mandatory COOL requirements for beef and pork products” with the 2016 appropriations act.

“The only action that USDA took that could have caused plaintiffs’ purported injury would be the agency’s issuance of the 2016 Final Rule, which directly implemented Congress’s directive,” Lopez-Morales wrote. 

The cattlemen want the judge to rule USDA’s  “failure to require the country-of-origin labels mandated by the Tariff Act unlawful and enjoin USDA be from deeming imported beef and pork in compliance with the FMIA (Federal Meat Inspection Act) unless it bears the labels required by the Tariff Act. 

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