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Victory in Defending Country-of-Origin Labeling!

August 1st, 2014
By George Kimbrell, Senior Attorney and Aurora Paulsen, Legal Fellow
Center for Food Safety

In 2002, the United States passed a new “Country of Origin Labeling” law, known as COOL, requiring retailers like supermarkets to apply origin labels to a variety of foods, including vegetables, fruits, and certain cuts of unprocessed meat.

COOL is intended to help U.S. consumers identify the country (or countries)food products were produced in. Much as we regularly see “Made in China” or “Made in Canada” on our toys and clothing, COOL puts those labels on our foods.

Why did Congress decide that it was important to have country of origin labels on food? First, COOL offers safety benefits. If we learn, for example, that mad cow disease has made an appearance somewhere, COOL would give Americans the option to avoid beef from that country at their grocery store until the outbreak has passed. Second, COOL could benefit American food producers, including ranchers and farmers, because many Americans, given the option, will choose to buy American-made products. The bottom line is that COOL disclosures protect the public's right to know where their food comes from, for a variety of reasons.

Supporting COOL are groups like CFS and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), as well as a number of American livestock producers and associations (e.g., the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union, the two largest organizations of U.S. farmers and ranchers). Consumers Union and Food and Water Watch have also supported the rules. We believe consumers have the right to know food origins. COOL helps people make safe, healthy food choices, and allows them to support local farmers and ranchers.

Buying American food products is important for both economic and environmental reasons. For example, some of the beef Americans consume is imported from Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and Central and South American countries including Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Brazil—where beef production is a major threat to the remaining rainforests. Buying foods produced closer to home cuts down on “food miles” and unnecessary emissions and should make it easier to monitor farm animal treatment.

Unfortunately, rather than comply with COOL, certain transnational special interest groups such as the American Meat Institute (AMI) objected to the law, and they filed a lawsuit in 2013, arguing, among other things, that the labels violated their First Amendment commercial speech rights. CFS and ALDF co-authored a brief to defend COOL in that case.

On Tuesday, July 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit confirmed that AMI’s free speech claim is without merit. According to the court, the government is fully within its rights in requiring corporations to provide basic factual information to consumers about food products, such as their production origin. You can find the opinion here.

CFS applauds the court’s affirmation of COOL as an important step towards a more transparent and sustainable future of food.

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