July 17, 2016

Congress Passes Federal Labeling Requirement for Genetically Engineered Foods; State Labeling Laws Would Be Preempted

Vermont enacted the first state law that requires the manufacturers of food products with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients to label their food products accordingly. Its Act 120 became law on July 1, 2016. However, for decades, there has been an ongoing battle at the federal level over whether a national labeling scheme should be enacted (the term GMO/genetically modified organism is also used). (See earlier posts for more background). So, after the Vermont bill became effective, there was a flurry of activity in Congress again to address the issue of a federal labeling scheme for GE food products. (The FDA has not required labels on food products with GE ingredients, in a policy that dates back to 1992). The Senate recently passed a bill, S. 764, that would mandate a particular federal labeling scheme for GE ingredients, and would also preempt any state labeling laws. The federal bill uses the term "bioengineering" to describe the products covered by the law: 
[F]ood - (A) that contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant [DNA] techniques; and (B) for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature. 
There is an explicit statement of the preemption achieved by this legislation: 
No State or a political subdivision of a State may directly or indirectly establish under any authority or continue in effect as to any food or seed in interstate commerce any requirement relating to the labeling of whether a food (including food served in a restaurant or similar establishment) or seed is genetically engineered (which  shall  include such other similar terms as determined by the Secretary of Agriculture) or was developed or produced using genetic engineering, including any requirement for claims that a food or seed is or contains an ingredient that was developed or produced using genetic engineering.
This last provision is aimed at the recent Vermont law, as well as other initiatives in Connecticut, Maine and Alaska. Since its enactment in 2014, the Vermont law had already impacted the food and restaurant industries, with some major players declaring that they would provide labels in anticipation of the law (see here). It was apparent that the Vermont law had immediate national impact, as food manufacturers faced compliance with the statute or avoidance of Vermont’s market (practically unworkable). Now, the House of Representatives has passed a version of the recent Senate bill, and it goes to President Obama for signing; it appears that he will sign it. The clear effect of the federal bill is to preempt the long-sought state labeling laws. However, does this bill actually require a label? The bill departs from other labeling proposals over the years (state and federal) in that it contains no explicit requirement to provide a “GMO” or other GE-related name on the main label of the product. The actual labeling scheme in the new federal law is quite elastic, describing the format of the labeling as follows: 
[T]he form of a food disclosure under this section be a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link. 
Thus, a consumer could use a smartphone to read a QR code, or utilize a provided link to access information, or read whatever disclosure material the manufacturer has chosen to provide. The forms of the notification could be arguably obscure, and indirect. In other words, at least so far, there will be no uniformity of disclosure. Already, there are allegations that the bill is discriminatory in that it will make it harder for some consumers to pursue the informational references; access to digitally formatted information is not universal. The USDA has two years to make the law operational, and may refine the labeling formats in that period, subject to public input.

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