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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Federal judge in Spokane dismisses suit seeking to reinstate country-of-origin labels on imported meat

Harry Harder, of Lamont, Washington, rounds up cattle amid a downpour on Thursday, May 10, 2018., (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Where’s the beef from? For now, it remains a mystery.

A federal judge in Spokane this week dismissed a lawsuit filed by domestic livestock producers to reinstate country-of-origin labeling on beef and pork products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture halted such labeling in 2016.

U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson agreed with the producers in her Tuesday dismissal that the USDA decision has caused them financial harm. But she ultimately sided with the government, saying that the legal clock had run out for the producers to challenge the underlying 1989 federal law, and that the U.S. Congress had clearly intended to have the labeling end.

“With regard to both USDA regulations at issue, Congress spoke directly to the question of country of origin labeling requirements, and the court must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress,” Peterson wrote in her decision.

Even though the lawsuit was dismissed, an attorney representing the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action League Fund, United Stockgrowers of America and Cattle Producers of Washington said the trade organizations will continue efforts to restore the labeling.

“The fact that the court agreed with us that independent pork and beef producers are harmed by (no country-of-origin labeling) makes it even clearer that the Trump Administration and Congress must act now to protect them,” lead counsel David Muraskin said in a news release.

Meat producers filed suit in Spokane last June after Congress passed a bill that called for the USDA to remove the country-of-origin labeling requirements.

That action followed sanctions filed against the U.S. by the World Trade Organization based on complaints from officials in Mexico and Canada, who argued the country-of-origin labeling caused an unfair advantage to American producers over imported livestock, according to the lawsuit.

The attorneys for the livestock producers argue the new regulation is in conflict with other existing laws. For instance, the Tariff Act of 1930 requires imported beef and pork to be marked or labeled with its country of origin all the way to “an ultimate purchaser in the United States.”

And the 2002 Farm Bill directed the USDA to ensure consumers be provided “additional information on which to base their purchasing decisions,” particularly information regarding a good’s country of origin, the suit states.

But all that changed with the 2016 decision.

“In fact, USDA allows such products to be labeled as ‘Product(s) of (the) U.S.A.’ even though the animals were born, raised, slaughtered, and butchered elsewhere,” attorneys for the livestock producers wrote. Under the current rules, the importer is considered the “ultimate purchaser,” and thus the meat can be considered a U.S. product.

Since the rule change, attorneys argued that in 2016 “USDA’s unlawful regulations provided for around 887,000,000 pounds of imported fresh beef to be passed off to consumers as homegrown products.”

Peterson’s decision to dismiss the case will not end the effort to re-instate the country-of-origin labeling, Muraskin said.

“This movement has been gaining ground outside of court, and we expect it to continue doing so despite this ruling,” he said.