John Block: GMOs Under Assault

By John R. Block

We can’t seem to silence or satisfy the loud scream of opposition to GE crops. The reason probably is that up until now we have ignored them. It’s time to stand up and set the record straight.

GE food is safe and even beneficial according to 88% of scientists. We have conducted more than 1,000 studies. We have been eating GE food for more than 20 years – no one has gotten sick.

The fact is that for thousands of years, farmers have been improving crops through selective breeding. That process alters genes. We have found that in the laboratory we can do it faster.

Never mind the facts, the critics are beating the drums. Three states have passed labeling laws. Vermont is in the lead as they begin to implement their law. It sounds simple. Just label the food if it has GMO products in the food.

It’s not that simple. Vermont has a long list of exemptions. Animal products are exempt – beef, pork, chicken, dairy. But keep in mind the animals were fed GMO corn and soybean meal.

Trying to get out ahead of everyone, Chipotle recently announced that it has gone GMO free. But it’s not really free. The soft drinks are made with GMO corn sweetener. The burritos have GMO corn-fed beef, pork, chicken, and GMO sour cream.

The U.S. Congress is considering as many as 30 bills to deal with the GMO debate. You may wonder where all of this noise is coming from. Yes, there are individuals that sincerely are concerned about GMO safety. However, the organic companies (some of them are huge) are helping to push the false argument about risk. If they succeed, they can sell more product and make more money.

This debate is not over. You will soon read about the next step in plant technology – gene editing. Gene editing is a more precise way to alter plant traits.

The leading critics of GMOs are totally inconsistent. First, they support the science on global warming, but ignore the science on GMOs. Next, they pretend to care about the poor, but genetic engineering helps the poor by keeping the cost of food down. The world will not produce enough food without new technology. Finally, if they want to reduce the use of chemicals and energy, GE also does that.

Stay tuned.

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.

Recapping Round 1 of the Vermont GMO-Labeling Lawsuit

By John G. Dillard

Millions across the globe tuned into this weekend’s Mayweather-Pacquiao bout, which was billed as “the fight of the century.” However, the pay-per-view event was not the only high stakes fight to report on from last week. Far away from the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas, a federal court in Vermont issued a much-anticipated opinion in what will be one of the true fights of the century for the American food industry – whether state governments can mandate GMO labels.

On April 27, 2015, Chief Judge Christina Reiss of the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont issued an opinion that mostly favored the State of Vermont and the positions of GMO-labeling advocates. In the case, Grocery Manufacturers Association v. Sorrell (No. 5:14-cv-117), the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association, and National Association of Manufacturers (the “Plaintiffs”) are challenging Vermont’s Act 120, which requires that certain foods sold at retail stores in Vermont bear mandatory labeling if they contain genetically-engineered ingredients. Act 120 also prohibits manufacturers from advertising or labeling foods that contain genetically-engineered ingredients as “natural” or “all natural.”

Both supporters and opponents of mandatory GMO-labeling have been keeping a close eye on this lawsuit. This is because Act 120, if it survives litigation, will make Vermont the first state in the country to require that certain foods containing ingredients produced with genetic engineering bear mandatory labels. GMA v. Sorrell is the test case for this issue, which will certainly reach the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and, possibly, the Supreme Court.

The Plaintiffs challenged Act 120 from several angles. First, the Plaintiffs asserted that Act 120’s GMO-labeling mandate was unconstitutional under both the First Amendment and the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. The Plaintiffs also argued that the GMO-labeling mandate was preempted by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). Furthermore, the Plaintiffs asserted that the ban on “natural” labeling is unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause and the First Amendment.

The State of Vermont filed a motion to dismiss the Plaintiffs’ case on August 8, 2014. Subsequently, the Plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction that would halt implementation of Act 120 while the Court decides whether to issue a permanent injunction invalidating Act 120. Chief Judge Reiss heard oral arguments on both of these motions on January 7, 2015, and issued an 84-page opinion in the case last Monday.

GMO-Labeling Mandate

The Plaintiffs challenged Act 120’s GMO-labeling mandate under the First Amendment, Commerce Clause, and Supremacy Clause. Here is how the Court addressed these issues:

  • First Amendment. The Plaintiffs alleged that Act 120’s GMO-labeling mandate violated the First Amendment’s protections against unlawfully-compelled speech. The Court held that “strict scrutiny” was not warranted in this case and dismissed the Plaintiffs’ complaint to the extent that it argued strict scrutiny applied. Instead, the Court held that the proper standard is most likely the “reasonable relationship” test. Under this test, also known as the Zauderer test, the Court held that for the purposes of preliminary injunction, the Plaintiffs were not likely to succeed on their First Amendment complaints. The Court reasoned that unless Vermont’s “legislative findings” prove unfounded at the permanent injunction stage of this litigation, the State has demonstrated a reasonable relationship between the state’s interest and the GMO-labeling mandate.
  • Commerce Clause. The Plaintiffs argued that Vermont’s labeling measure violates the Constitution’s Commerce Clause because the state-based labeling measure would create an undue burden on interstate commerce, ultimately resulting in a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws. The Court was not convinced, noting that there were no other states with conflicting labeling laws. The Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ complaint to the extent that it alleged the GMO-labeling mandate was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause.
  • Supremacy Clause. The Plaintiffs asserted that the GMO-labeling mandate was preempted by the FFDCA, NLEA, FMIA, and PPIA. The Court was not convinced by the Plaintiffs’ arguments with regards to the FFDCA or the NLEA. However, the Court agreed that the FMIA and PPIA expressly preempted state standards for “[m]arking, labeling, packaging, or ingredient requirements in addition to, or different than, those mandated by federal law.” This means that processed and packaged foods that are subject to USDA inspection, such as canned soups or frozen dinners containing meat or poultry products, cannot be subject to state GMO-labeling mandates. Vermont has already conceded this issue in its final rule, which implements Act 120.

“Natural” Labeling Prohibition

The Plaintiffs also challenged Act 120’s prohibition on advertising and labeling of products containing genetically-engineered ingredients as “natural,” “all natural,” or words of similar import. The Plaintiffs argued that this prohibition violated the First Amendment. The Court sided with the Plaintiffs on the First Amendment argument, reasoning that prohibitions on commercial speech are subject to “intermediate scrutiny” under the Central Hudson test. The Court held that Vermont has failed to demonstrate a “substantial” state interest in prohibiting these labels. The Court also held that the “natural” labeling prohibition violated the Commerce Clause to the extent that it attempted to regulate advertising that occurred outside of Vermont.

Although the Court largely sided with the Plaintiffs on the “natural” labeling prohibition, Chief Judge Reiss did not grant a preliminary injunction on this matter, citing to a lack of proof of “irreparable harm” on the part of the Plaintiffs.

Next Steps

This first round of the litigation is certainly a setback for those in the food industry that oppose state-level GMO-labeling mandates. However, this is only the first round. The Plaintiffs have not announced their next steps. At this point, they may either (1) seek an interlocutory appeal of this decision at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, or (2) move forward to the permanent injunction stage of this litigation.

In the meantime, support is growing for the proposed Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would preempt state GMO-labeling measures and set standards for when GMO labels could and could not be required. However, no votes have been taken on this measure and it is uncertain whether the measure has a chance of being enacted into law.

OFW Law will continue to monitor developments in this case.

Mandated Labeling for Genetically Engineered Foods: Vermont’s Legislation Implicates the First Amendment

By Robert A. Hahn and John G. Dillard

Note: OFW Law’s Bob Hahn and John Dillard recently authored a legal backgrounder on the First Amendment implications of Vermont’s new genetically engineered food labeling law for the Washington Legal Foundation, a widely respected non-profit legal organization.

Vermont has become the first state to require labeling of genetically engineered foods. On April 23, 2014, Vermont’s legislature approved a bill (H.112) that would require raw agricultural commodities and processed foods offered for sale in Vermont retail stores, with certain exceptions, to bear special labeling if they are entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering. Governor Peter Shumlin signed the bill into law on May 8, 2014, and the labeling requirement will become effective on July 1, 2016.  Vermont is now at the tip of the spear in the movement to require labeling on foods containing ingredients that are commonly referred to as “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs.”

Although this legislation apparently enjoys broad popular support in a state known for embracing organic farming techniques and the local food movement, it is vulnerable to a constitutional challenge under the First Amendment. While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is a particularly hospitable court for Vermont to make its case, it is not clear that even the Second Circuit would uphold this law if challenged. Moreover, even if the law is upheld by the Second Circuit, there is a good chance that the U.S. Supreme Court would grant certiorari to an appeal, given    the existence of a pronounced split among the circuit courts on the proper standard to be applied in First Amendment review of this type of labeling law.

Click here to read the rest of Bob and John’s Washington Legal Foundation article.

As Vermont Goes….? GMO Labeling Becomes the Law in Vermont

By Robert A. Hahn

Vermont has become the first state in the nation to enact a law requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods.  (Connecticut and Maine has enacted labeling laws, but their laws do not go into effect unless a critical mass of neighboring states enact similar requirements.)  On April 23, 2014, the Vermont state legislature passed H.112 requiring raw agricultural commodities and processed foods offered for sale in Vermont retail stores, with certain exceptions, to bear special labeling if they are entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering. Governor Peter Shumlin signed the bill into law yesterday.  The labeling requirement will become effective on July 1, 2016.

The Vermont law requires that raw agricultural commodities (e.g., whole ears of corn) that are genetically engineered be labeled “produced with genetic engineering.”  Processed foods must be labeled “partially produced with genetic engineering,” “may be produced with genetic engineering,” or “produced with genetic engineering.”  In the case of processed foods and packaged raw agricultural commodities, compliance is the obligation of the manufacturer.  In the case of unpackaged raw agricultural commodities sold in bins, compliance is the retailer’s responsibility.

The Vermont Attorney General may, by regulation, require that the label statement include a disclaimer stating that the Food and Drug Administration does not consider foods produced using genetic engineering to be materially different from other foods.

Exemptions include the following:

  • Foods derived entirely from an animal which was not genetically engineered (GE), even if the animal was fed GE feed;
  • Animal feed and pet food;
  • Foods whose only GE content is a GE enzyme or processing aid;
  • Alcoholic beverages;
  • Restaurant foods and other foods served in establishments for immediate consumption;
  • Medical foods;
  • Processed foods that contain 0.9% or less GE content by weight;
  • Foods produced without the knowing or intentional use of genetic engineering; and
  • Foods verified by an independent organization as produced without the knowing or intentional use of genetic engineering.

H. 112 also prohibits “natural,” “all natural,” and similar claims in labeling or advertising for foods produced entirely or partially from genetic engineering.

It is anticipated that the Vermont law will be challenged in court.  We think it is vulnerable to a legal challenge on grounds of federal preemption and violation of the First Amendment and Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.