Law School Case Brief
Am. Meat Inst. v. United States Dep't of Agric. - 411 U.S. App. D.C. 318, 760 F.3d 18 (2014)
Because the extension of First Amendment protection to commercial speech is justified principally by the value to consumers of the information such speech provides, the constitutionally protected interest in not providing any particular factual information in advertising is minimal. All told, the characterization of the speaker's interest in opposing forced disclosure of such information as minimal seems inherently applicable beyond the problem of deception. To the extent that other cases in the D.C. Circuit may be read as holding to the contrary and limiting application to cases in which the government points to an interest in correcting deception, the court overrules them.
Congress required country-of-origin labels on a variety of foods, including some meat products, and tasked the Secretary of Agriculture with implementation. In the statute’s amendment, enacted in 2008, Congress defined “country of origin” as the country where the animal has been born, raised, and slaughtered. In 2009, the Secretary of Agriculture has promulgated the implementing rules related to the statute; known as the Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (“2009 Rules”), the rules did not demand explicit identification of the production steps occurring in each listed country, but called more simply for labeling with a phrase starting "Product of," followed by mention of one or more countries. The 2009 Rules also allowed the labeling of meat cuts from animals of different origins processed together on a single production day relatively simple; the label could just name all the countries of origin for the commingled animals. After the 2009 rule's adoption, Canada and Mexico filed a complaint with the Dispute Settlement Body of the World Trade Organization. In due course the WTO's Appellate Body found the rule to be in violation of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. With the WTO’s Appellate Body’s decision, the Secretary of Agriculture responded with a rule (“2013 Rule”) requiring more precise information—revealing the location of each production step (e.g. meat derived from an animal born in Canada and raised and slaughtered in the United States, which formerly could have been labeled "Product of the United States and Canada," would now have to be labeled "Born in Canada, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States”). The 2013 Rule also eliminated the flexibility allowed in labeling commingled animals. Concerned with the cost implications of the 2013 Rule, the plaintiffs, trade associations representing livestock producers, feedlot operators, and meat packers, collectively called as American Meat Institute (AMI), challenged the 2013 rule in district court as a violation of both the statute and the First Amendment. According to AMI, the 2013 rule violates its First Amendment right to freedom of speech by requiring it to disclose country-of-origin information to retailers, who will ultimately provide the information to consumers.
Did the 2013 Rule violate American Meat Institute’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech?
The Court held that under the First Amendment, government interests in addition to correcting deception can be invoked to sustain a disclosure mandate of purely factual and uncontroversial information about the terms under which products or services are available. According to the Court, the government had a substantial interest in mandating disclosure of country-of-origin information about meat products, based on a long history of such disclosures to enable consumers to choose American-made products, demonstrated consumer interest in extending country-of-origin labeling to food products, and the individual health concerns and market impacts that can arise in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak. The Court averred that means-end fit is self-evidently satisfied when the government acts only through a reasonably crafted mandate to disclose purely factual and uncontroversial information about attributes of a product or service.
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