March 30, 2016

Vermont Law Requiring Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods Set to Take Effect as Congressional Opposition Fails

Vermont is on track to implement the nation’s first law requiring the labeling of foods with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, whether raw or processed. (The term "genetically modified organism" (GMO) is often seen in discussions as well). The state’s Act 120, passed in 2014, was enacted to advance several objectives related to “public health and food safety, environmental impacts” and avoidance of “consumer confusion and deception.” The law states: 
[F]ood offered for sale by a retailer after July 1, 2016 shall be labeled as produced entirely or in part from genetic engineering if it is a product:
(1) offered for retail sale in Vermont; and 
(2) entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering. 
The law further describes the labeling: 
[I]n the case of any processed food that contains a product or products of genetic engineering, the manufacturer shall label the package in which the processed food is offered for sale with the words: “partially produced with genetic engineering;" “may be produced with genetic engineering;" or “produced with genetic engineering.” 
In the two years since its passage, there have been several efforts in Congress to enact a federal law that would reassert federal jurisdiction over the labeling issue and preempt any state labeling laws. The House considered bills in 2015, and the Senate just this month considered its own version. Although a House bill passed, the attempts to establish a federal counterweight to state labeling efforts failed as a similar bill was defeated in the Senate. Efforts to mandate the labeling of GE food products at the national level have consistently failed in Congress, and the FDA has resisted all calls for a national mandate on labeling. Now, as Vermont’s law will take effect on July 1, 2016, preparations for compliance are evident on a number of fronts. The Attorney General has issued a memorandum detailing its enforcement strategy which states: 
Our Office expects that most GE foods on Vermont grocery store shelves will be properly labeled by July 1, 2016. Out of recognition that some food products have longer shelf lives, CP (Consumer Protection Rule) 121 creates a six-month “safe harbor” for foods distributed before July 1, 2016, and offered for retail sale through December 31, 2016. During this six-month period, unless there is evidence that a manufacturer distributed a mislabeled product after July 1, 2016, we will not bring an enforcement action or seek fines for those products. 
Beyond these developments in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine have also passed mandatory GE labeling laws; however, their implementation will only be triggered when a number of states join the effort (see here). On the commercial front, with the Vermont mandate looming, major food manufacturers are releasing plans to add labeling labeling regarding the “genetically engineered” attributes of their food products. General Mills issued a statement
As the discussions continue in Washington, one thing is very clear: Vermont state law requires us to start labeling certain grocery store food packages that contain GMO ingredients or face significant fines. We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that. The result: consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products. 
Other major companies following suit include Kellogg’s, ConAgra Foods, and Campbell’s Foods. In a departure from other manufacturers, Campbell’s has called for a federally mandated labeling system to systematize labeling, and the company formally withdrew from food industry efforts to oppose GE food labeling laws and initiatives. The effect of the Vermont law is now being realized across the food industry; however, a lawsuit filed against Vermont's law by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is still working through the federal courts: the trial judge denied summary judgment and a preliminary injunction for GMA; an appeal of the district court's injunction ruling is on appeal at the Second Circuit.

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