A Canada-U.S. meat dispute takes a free-speech twist

Canadian livestock producers were in an American courtroom Monday fighting against labelling requirements blamed for having devastated their exports to the United States.

WASHINGTON — Canadian livestock producers were in an American courtroom Monday fighting against labelling requirements blamed for having devastated their exports to the United States.

The case revolves around the free-speech rights guaranteed in the First Amendment, one of the most sacrosanct provisions of the American Constitution.

Canadian and Mexican producers, and the U.S. partners they supply, argue that those speech rights are being violated by the requirement that they stamp country-of-origin labels on meat packaging.

They say the requirement is not only costly, from a logistical standpoint, but also amounts to the American government forcing them to divulge information for illegitimate reasons — which, they argue, violates First Amendment rights.

Numerous parties have standing in the case, which was being argued on the anti-labelling side by a lawyer for the American Meat Institute. Opposing arguments were made by U.S. government lawyers.

The lawyer for AMI argued that the rules are pure protectionism, disguised as an attempt to help consumers learn about the origin of their food. She said the initiative did not meet the standard set by courts in past cases about corporate disclosure.

“We’re here representing ranchers who are feeling a colossal impact,” said Catherine Stetson, the AMI lawyer.

“(Proponents of labelling) want to favour meat that is born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.”

Attorneys for both sides were being grilled by 11 judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. In a surprise reversal, the court declared last month that it would hear the case and that it was vacating a ruling rendered just a few days earlier, when it denied a request for an injunction against the labelling rules.

A U.S. insistence on country labels, introduced in 2002 and enforced since 2008, is blamed for reducing Canadian cross-border meat exports by half. The provisions are opposed by various elements in the U.S. meat industry — but supported by some ranchers near the border, who compete with Canadians and Mexicans, along with their allies in Congress.

The labelling rules are also being fought at the World Trade Organization.

A lawyer for the American government denied the rules were designed with protectionist aims.

“It’s furthering consumers’ ability to act on their own preference,” said Daniel Tenny, the U.S. Department of Justice lawyer.

“We’re not directly trying to help American ranchers… (although) it might have that effect.”

That federal lawyer received a rough ride from one judge appointed by George W. Bush. Brett Kavanaugh repeatedly pressed Tenny to explain how the rules did anything to help consumers.

He suggested the legal precedent says governments cannot force companies what to say, except under three circumstances: to protect health, safety, and consumers from being deceived.

Kavanaugh suggested the labelling rules did not meet that standard — but merely served other purposes.

“This is a bias against Mexican and Canadian ranchers,” the judge said. “It’s a traditional protectionist impulse. What’s the difference?”

Later in the hearing, he added: “The implicit message is to buy American.”

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