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updated: 7/9/2013 3:25 PM

Meat industry groups sue over country-of-origin labeling

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July 9 -- U.S. meat industry groups, joined by Canadian counterparts, sued the Agriculture Department seeking to block rules requiring meat producers to increase the amount of information about countries of origin on their products.

Regulations adopted in May require producers to specify where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Retail packages can't mix muscle cuts from different countries under a general label, the groups said yesterday in a federal court complaint in Washington.

"Imported livestock are a critical supply for American processing plants, particularly those near the Canadian and Mexican borders," lawyers for groups including the American Meat Institute and the Canadian Cattlemen's Association said in the complaint. "Labels will require the transmission of extensive detail and paperwork," and "defendants concede that there is no health or safety reason" not to commingle meats, they said.

Meat producers asked for a ruling that the new regulations are unconstitutional, an order to stop their enforcement, and an award of legal fees.

The original rules came into effect in 2009 in response to the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in a Canadian animal in 2003. Canada and Mexico told the World Trade Organization that the rules discriminated against their products.

'Costly' Labels

The industry groups allege the revised rules violate the U.S. Constitution by compelling speech "in the form of costly and detailed labels on meat products" that will confuse consumers, raise prices and put some producers out of business, according to a meat institute press release.

A USDA spokeswoman, Stephanie Chan, didn't immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit takes the dispute "to the next level" where the U.S. has to address it and has more teeth in the short-term than challenging the rules through the WTO, Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a telephone interview. American and Canadian industry groups see the rules as counter to common sense as they will cost businesses hundreds of millions of dollars, Ritz said.

The producers contend that new labeling equipment alone might cost the industry more than $192 million.

The case is American Meat Institute v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 13-cv-01033, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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