March 14, 2013

State Efforts to Enact Labeling Laws for Genetically Engineered Food

Following the defeat of California’s Proposition 37 last November, which would have required the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods sold in the state, other state efforts to require such labeling are underway and continue to emerge. These states include Vermont, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey, Washington, among others. The efforts generally involve the introduction of legislation to mandate the labeling of GE foods in the state (similar to other attempts in earlier years, none successful). (GE foods are also characterized with the label GMO, standing for genetically modified organisms). At the federal level, the FDA does not mandate such labeling; legal challenges to the policy have failed. While the California proposition might have been expected to pass in view of consumer surveys demonstrating widespread public support for GE food labeling, the mechanism of a ballot initiative (coincident with a Presidential election) in the nation’s largest state recruited much national attention from supporters and opponents (see here). Those inclined to support the labeling measure either casually or by default encountered a visible and persuasive opposition campaign that warned of the costs of such a measure (litigation, regulatory apparatus, price hikes, etc.). As a result, the measure was defeated 51%-48%. Into the ongoing legislative battles around the country comes the recent announcement from food retailer Whole Foods: “Whole Foods Market commits to full GMO transparency by giving supplier partners five years to source non-GMO ingredients or to clearly label products with ingredients containing GMOs.” That takes the effective date to 2018, giving suppliers lead time to comply. How this market-driven move will affect the political climate in which new state labeling bills are introduced is unknown at the moment (this retailer is only located in 39 states), but it would be fair to conclude that the policy (made in response to consumer demand) could also start to shape consumer expectations, which might generate more public support for GE food labeling laws.

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