Judge strikes down safe-handling meat labels



AUSTIN, Texas (AP)—A federal judge Thursday blocked from taking effect a U.S. Agriculture Department rule requiring safe handling labels on uncooked meat and poultry. Many food suppliers planned to comply anyway.

U.S. District Judge James Nowlin said the agency didn’t follow proper public notice and comment procedures under the Administrative Procedure Act.

The judge said a preliminary injunction sought by several food industry groups—the National-American Wholesale Grocers’ Association, National Grocers Association and Texas Food Industry Association—would remain in effect until further court order.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy said in a statement he was ‘‘extremely disappointed’‘ in the decision.

‘‘I believe, as I always have, that the safe handling label is fundamental in our effort to prevent consumers and especially children from getting ill all across this country due to improper handling and cooking of meat and poultry products,’‘ he said.

Espy praised businesses that already had moved to comply with the rule, and urged others to follow their example despite the decision.

In August, the Agriculture Department set the Friday deadline for adding labels that tell about safe cooking, handling, refrigerating and thawing meats that aren’t fully cooked when purchased.

The department had said the labels must warn about possible bacterial contamination if the product is mishandled or improperly cooked. Last week, the department changed the rule to require the labels only on ground products and said brochures would be acceptable for all other uncooked meat until April 15.

The rule was among several USDA actions after a fatal outbreak of food poisoning linked to meat contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

In his ruling, Nowlin said he couldn’t find that there would be any harm to the public in blocking the rule until proper procedures were followed.

While the USDA contended it had cause to publish the rule in August without the normal opportunity for public comment, he wrote, the rule’s implementation was delayed for 60 days to allow businesses to obtain the required labeling.

‘‘If there truly was an epidemic problem or anywhere close to such a problem, the USDA presumably would have required a much shorter period for the effective date of the emergency rule,’‘ Nowlin wrote.

Nowlin also cited the ‘‘significant costs’‘ of complying with the new rule, which he said would affect about 20 billion packages of meat and poultry products.

He said those costs would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars—higher than the USDA’s estimates—and would be passed on to consumers. In addition, he said, those not complying could be subject to civil and criminal penalties.

The threatened harm to the food industry groups ‘‘overwhelmingly outweighs any damage the injunction might cause’‘ to the USDA, Nowlin said.

Christopher Galen of the National-American Wholesale Grocers’ Association said he hadn’t had a chance to review the order. However, he said of the injunction, ‘‘That’s what we went to court for. We have to be pleased with the outcome.’‘

But Sara Clarke of the American Meat Institute, representing packers and processors, said, ‘‘Our industry is going to operate like the label’s in full force.

‘‘We can’t be going back and forth and back and forth like this. Our people are fully prepared to comply … but this is utter chaos,’‘ Ms. Clarke said. The institute was not part of the lawsuit.

Julie Reynolds, a spokeswoman for The Vons Cos., which owns supermarkets in central and Southern California and Clarke County, Nev., said the company planned to have labels on all ground products and brochures for everything else Friday.