G.M.O. labeling initiatives back in the spotlight

by Jay Sjerven
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As the mid-term elections approached, voters in Oregon and Colorado considered arguments for and against ballot initiatives that would require the mandatory labeling of foods containing bioengineered ingredients. The ballot initiatives are similar to those that failed in California in 2012 and Washington in 2013 and to legislation passed by the Vermont legislature last spring that currently is the subject of a lawsuit brought against the state by the food industry. As the Nov. 4 elections drew near, money from labeling proponents and opponents streamed into the two states as each side sought to make its case.

This has become familiar ground. Grassroots activist organizations supported by organic farming interests and national opponents of bioengineering gather the required number of signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, and the fight is on.

In Oregon, initiative proponents and opponents have raised about $12 million to press their cases. Oregon Measure 92 would require food manufacturers, retailers and suppliers to label raw and packaged foods produced or manufactured entirely or partially by bioengineering. If voters pass the measure, the labeling would commence by Jan. 1, 2016. A similar ballot initiative went down to defeat in Oregon in 2002.

 Oregon labeling advocates were working under the umbrella of the Yes on 92 Campaign of Oregon Right to Know. Measure 92 included several assertions related to purported risks to human health and the environment that may result from the use of bioengineering. In previous contests, the food industry proved itself capable of addressing those concerns and was able to point to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s conclusions that bioengineered foods and ingredients were not significantly different from and posed no greater health risk than the non-bioengineered foods to which they may be compared.

The No On 92 Coalition organizes Oregon labeling opponents. The coalition argued the measure would create a separate and costly food production and labeling system just for Oregon, a system that was not justified by food science.

Right to Know Colorado is behind Proposition 105, that state’s G.M.O labeling measure. The proposition asks voters if foods modified or treated with bioengineered materials should be labeled “Produced with genetic engineering” starting July 1, 2016.

“If G.M.O.s are safe, as companies say, then why not label them on food?” asked Larry Cooper of Right to Know Colorado. “Coloradans should not be left in the dark about what they are feeding their families.”

Meanwhile, Judge Christina Reiss, chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Vermont, ruled the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and the Center for Food Safety would not be allowed to intervene as co-defendants in the case brought against the State of Vermont by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers. The industry associations on June 13, 2014, filed a complaint with the court challenging the constitutionality of the state’s mandatory G.M.O. labeling law that was enacted in May.

Judge Reiss noted in her ruling that “the state has affirmed its capacity and motivation to vigorously defend Act 120 (Vermont’s G.M.O. labeling law)” and, therefore, the interests of the groups in defending the law would be adequately represented by the state. At the same time, Judge Reiss ruled that V.P.I.R.G. and C.F.S. may participate in the case as amici curiae, or “friends of the court,” stating legal briefs filed by the organizations “may prove helpful to the court.” Neither the state nor the plaintiffs in the case objected to the ruling.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrel on Oct. 10 announced three public meetings to be held Oct. 22-24 to introduce and discuss draft rules to implement Act 120.

Legislatures of two other states, Maine and Connecticut, have passed laws to require mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods, but these laws will not take effect until neighboring states pass similar legislation. The Connecticut law was passed in December 2013 but won’t take effect until a combination of Northeastern states whose combined population exceeds 20 million enact similar laws. The Maine labeling law won’t take effect until the legislatures of five neighboring states, including New Hampshire, enact similar legislation.

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