GM Labeling for Different States?

GM Foods: Can We Afford for States to Set Their Own Regulations?

Food quality and safety managers have their necks on the line daily when it comes to managing their companies’ food quality and safety programs, including their product labeling. Should any of the current state initiatives to establish unique state standards for genetically modified organisms (GMO) and non-genetically modified organisms (NGMO) products become effective, their jobs will instantly become significantly more complicated.

Various ballot initiatives seeking to impose increased labeling requirements on GMO foods are being proposed in over 20 different states. In June 2013, Connecticut became the first state to pass legislation (House Bill 6527) requiring that genetically modified foods and foods containing GMOs be labeled as “produced with genetic engineering.” Because of concerns about potential negative consequences (including increased food prices in the state, economic and competitive harm to local food producers and businesses, and the expected litigation costs of defending these regulations in the courtroom), the bill includes a “trigger” provision that the labeling requirements would go into effect only after at least four other Northeastern states (including at least one bordering state) with a combined aggregate population of at least 20 million adopt similar requirements. Shortly thereafter, the Maine legislature passed a similar bill (LD 718), also containing a “trigger” provision requiring such labeling only if at least five neighboring states pass similar GMO legislation.

As evinced by the “trigger” provisions in the Connecticut and Maine bills, the impact of proposed state legislation is likely to soar beyond that being mentioned by the advocates of these regulations. Consumers all across the country, regardless of where they reside, will have to live with the unintended consequences of such legislation. In addition to the impact on consumers and producers, the legislation itself will face numerous legal challenges, making it very possible that these proposed regulations will never take effect.

Motivation Behind State Legislation

The Oregonian, an Oregon newspaper, recently reported that state lawmakers are studying eight bills focused on labeling genetically modified foods, fish, and crops. One proposal bans the farming of such fish outright.

Oregon State Representative Paul Holvey, a sponsor of several GMO bills, told the newspaper, “I think consumers have a right to know and make their own decisions about these foods.” Holvey said he became concerned about the issue after visiting Atlantic salmon fish farms in Washington and British Columbia. “Our fisheries are extremely important to the economy,” he said. “If we allow the Pacific Northwest to become a mixed bag of Atlantic salmon and genetically engineered salmon, I think consumer confidence in Pacific salmon will be undermined and damage the industry.” No mention of health concerns there.

FDA = No GMO Labeling

Although FDA regulations require the labeling of hundreds of food ingredients, additives, and processes, they do not currently contain any GMO labeling requirements. In fact, the FDA’s position on GMOs, as stated in a 1992 policy statement, is that products containing GMOs do not differ in any meaningful or material way from other foods, do not present any different or greater safety concerns, and do not differ in taste or smell from other food products. Specifically, the FDA stated that it “has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.” In a January 2001 Guidance document, the FDA reiterated that it “is not aware of any data or other information that would form a basis for concluding that the fact that a food or its ingredients was produced using bioengineering is a material fact that must be disclosed . . . FDA is therefore reaffirming its decision to not require special labeling of all bioengineered foods.” The FDA’s position is consistent with a French court decision in August 2013 overturning the French agricultural ministry’s ban on genetically modified corn, finding that the government failed to provide proof that the food posed a risk to human health or the environment.

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