January 27, 2012

Genetically Engineered Food Labels: State and Federal Pressure Points

There is one more effort to require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. This time it occurs in the state of Washington, where Senate Bill 6298 has been introduced, which would require that agricultural commodities or processed food containing genetically modified ingredients be labeled with the word "genetically engineered.”  This effort lines up with other state initiatives, such as the New York state GE labeling bill, for example, introduced last year but not enacted. There are several distinct approaches to the GE food labeling which illustrate the pressure points available. One other state approach in 2012 is a pending California ballot initiative which would require labels on GE food. To date, no state has enacted a mandatory labeling law for GE food, with the exception of Alaska’s law that requires the labeling of genetically engineered salmon. Last week, the California legislature shelved a similar bill regarding the labeling of GE salmon. No American regulatory body or legislature has implemented any such requirement.  In a 1992 policy document, the FDA stated that "the agency does not believe that the method of development of a new plant variety (including the use of new techniques including recombinant DNA techniques) is normally material information within the meaning of 21 U.S.C. 321(n) and would not usually be required to be disclosed in labeling for the food." At the national level, there are two pressure points for change: a citizen petition filed at the FDA asking that the agency implement mandatory labeling of GE food under its current statutory authorities, and a federal bill, the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, introduced in Congress this year (as well prior sessions) which would explicitly mandate This fact contrasts with developments in the international regime for GE food labeling, where, despite U.S. opposition, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (an international organization of food safety regulators that establishes international standards) reached an international consensus last year on labeling guidelines for GE food; this was significant because it eliminated any challenge to national food labeling as a barrier to trade, actionable under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. So the legal picture for resolving GE food labeling remains turbulent, with a significant degree of international agreement emerging that contrasts with a continuing domestic impasse.

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