A recent ruling in a case about the labeling of meat products could have significant implications for tobacco control and many other areas of public health. The American Meat Institute v. United States Dept. of Agriculture case concerns mandatory disclosures to consumers. Mandatory disclosure laws play a crucial role in protecting public health, safety and the environment. They allow consumers to make informed choices by requiring disclosure of essential information, such as when products contain toxic substances, where products are made, whether products are organic or kosher, etc.

The American Meat Institute case involved an industry challenge to a federal regulation mandating detailed country-of-origin labeling for meat products offered for sale in the United States. The issue before the en banc (entire bench) U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was what standard of First Amendment review applies when the government requires factual information to be disclosed for reasons other than preventing consumer deception. In other words, the court had to decide whether the compelled disclosure of factual information for educational purposes would need to meet the lenient test set forth by Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, or whether it would need to meet the more stringent Central Hudson test generally applied in the commercial speech context

Requiring every mandated disclosure to be subject to the stricter standard of review required by Central Hudson would threaten a host of regulations, including future tobacco product graphic warnings, nutritional labeling, securities disclosures, reports of releases of toxic substances, notifications of workplace hazards, and any other required disclosures of factual information for public health/consumer protection educational purposes (unrelated to deception).  

On July 29, 2014, the en banc D.C. Circuit upheld the constitutionality of the USDA mandatory disclosure rules. The court held that disclosures required for educational purposes should be evaluated under the test set forth by Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel.  As Ted Mermin of Public Good Law Center has pointed out, with this “multi-textured decision,” the en banc D.C. Circuit joined the First, Second and Sixth Circuits (indeed, all the courts of appeals that have considered this question), and “directly repudiated earlier panel decisions of the D.C. Circuit — particularly the infamous decision in R.J. Reynolds v. FDA (2012)” (which halted implementation of the Food and Drug Administration’s graphic warning requirements for cigarette packages and advertising).  

All in all, the American Meat Institute ruling was a win for public health.

Kerry Cork, J.D., Staff Attorney, Tobacco Control Legal Consortium at the Public Health Law Center