Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sunflower Seeds

I am falling behind on Rulings of the Week, but not for want of effort. I am keeping up with CIT decisions (more or less). The latest of which is Well Luck Co., Inc. v. United States. The case has to do with the classification of sunflower seeds that have been processed for human consumption. Some have been flavored with spices or other flavorings and dried. All are roasted and salted. The question is the tariff classification, which turns out to be trickier than you think.

The options are HTSUS item 1206.00.00, which covers "Sunflower seeds, whether or not broken." The applicable rate of duty is free and this is what the plaintiff claimed is correct. Customs and Border Protection liquidated the sunflower seeds in HTSUS item 2008.19.90 as "Fruits, nuts and other edible parts of plants, otherwise prepared or preserved . . . not elsewhere specified or included: Nuts, peanuts (ground-nuts) and other seeds . . . ." The applicable rate of duty is 17.9%, which is a significant deviation.

Think about everything you know about classification. In your heart, you already know the answer, don't you? Sunflower seeds are sunflower seeds. They are called out eo nomine in 1206.00.00 and that tariff item covers all forms of the sunflower seed. Easy. On top of that, as between the two, Heading 1206 is more specific in that is covers sunflower seeds. Heading 2008, on the other hand, covers other edible parts of plants not elsewhere specified or included, which is far less specific. Finally, since sunflower seeds are specified in 1206, they cannot be included in 2008.

All of that makes sense.

And yet, your conclusion (and mine) is wrong. Let's try to sort it out.

First off, do not jump to Relative Specificity under General Rule of Interpretation 3(a) until we fully explore the text as required by GRI 1.

Let's agree that if the processed sunflower seeds are classifiable in 1206, they are excluded from 2008. So that is the first question the Court of International Trade had to decide: are processed sunflower seeds "sunflower seeds" for purposes of Heading 1206? Getting the botany out of the way, there was no dispute that the imported product is the edible seed of Helianthus annuus, the common sunflower.

The problem for the plaintiff in this case is that the Explanatory Notes further define sunflower seeds of Heading 1206 as "minimally processed" and having general uses including for the extraction of oil and for sowing. These are not those seeds. They have been processed to add flavoring (even if just salt) and have been heated to an extent that they are no longer suitable for sowing. These are sunflower seeds with the specific use of being a food item. As a result, they are excluded from Heading 1206 and reamin classifiable in Heading 2008.

This conclusion is consistent with the Explanatory Notes. It is also consistent with the overall structure of the HTSUS, which moves from less processed to more highly processed materials. There is no doubt that the imported seeds are more highly processed than similar seeds for oil extraction or sowing. Thus, I don't have much of a problem with this result.

But, I think there is an analytical open question. A few Court of Appeals cases have held that the Explanatory Notes should not be used to impose a restriction on the language of the HTSUS that is not present in the text. See, e.g., Archer Daniels Midland v. U.S. Is that what happened here? Is there an answer to this issue that does not violate that principle?

There are no legal notes to Chapter 12 that exclude processed sunflower seeds. There are also no relevant Section Notes. Suddenly, this is a hard case.

The Court resolved this concern by noting that the meaning of the term "sunflower seed" is actually ambiguous. The lexicographical materials submitted to the Court indicate two distinct meanings. First, there are the raw and minimally processed seeds that remain suitable for oil extraction and for sowing. Those seeds may also be used for human consumption. Although not addressed by the Court, it is worth noting that Heading 1206 includes two statistical suffixes for sunflower seeds for "human use." The suffixes are not relevant to classification, but are indicative that some of the seeds of Heading 1206 are edible by humans.

The second meaning of sunflower seeds is in reference to the prepared snack food, which is no longer capable of general use. Having found two distinct meanings, the term is ambiguous and it makes sense and is legally correct to look to the Explanatory Notes to resolve the ambiguity.

That resulted in a substantial duty increase, which is why I suspect the Federal Circuit will let us know whether it agrees with this analysis. Given Archer Daniels Midland and the related cases, it is a close call on which reasonable judges might differ.

1 comment:

Michele Mitchell said...
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