Congress stirred into action on GMO labeling

February 29, 2016

Food, Beverage & Agriculture Alert

Author(s): Marjorie S. Fochtman, Thomas E. Gaynor, Dia Kirby

The Senate Agriculture Committee meets tomorrow to discuss controversial legislation that could preempt state rules aimed at restricting labeling for foods containing GMOs. This alert discusses the potential impact of such legislation.

Congress is considering controversial legislation that would have the effect of preempting state rules aimed at restricting labeling for foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Rather than a piecemeal approach of mandatory rules on GMO labeling across states, legislation under consideration by the Senate Agriculture Committee would create a voluntary federal food labeling program. The legislation would effectively invalidate rules that are slated to go into effect in states such as Vermont mandating labels for foods containing GMOs.

Opinions about a federal approach to labeling have varied. Some concerned parties have expressed that a voluntary labeling program would essentially limit the ability of consumers to know about the products they are consuming and how they are produced. Conversely, some companies have explained that patchwork labeling impedes commerce.

Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the sponsor of the bill, said last Tuesday that absent federal action, “you are going to just have a hodgepodge where the food industry can’t sell their products.” Other Committee members echoed a similar sentiment. North Dakota Senator John Hoeven explained that if states have laws like Vermont’s, the impact “will be on consumers both in terms of not being able to get the product they want and in terms of cost.” Some cost concerns stem from the dollars that companies may be forced to spend in order to ensure their products do not include GMOs. This cost would undoubtedly be passed along to consumers.

Other Committee members advocate a different approach to federal labeling legislation. For example, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan recommends a mandatory labeling program with a moratorium on state labeling laws that would last for two years rather than legislation that would completely preempt state law.

The Senate Agriculture Committee originally intended to meet to consider Senator Roberts’ bill on February 25, 2016. However, due to what was described as changes in the Senate floor schedule, the meeting has been postponed until Tuesday, March 1.

GMO food labeling will continue to be an important issue as this year progresses. We anticipate greater scrutiny of food labels from both consumers and legislators alike as the food labeling landscape continues to change.

The foregoing has been prepared for the general information of clients and friends of the firm. It is not meant to provide legal advice with respect to any specific matter and should not be acted upon without professional counsel. If you have any questions or require any further information regarding these or other related matters, please contact your regular Nixon Peabody LLP representative. This material may be considered advertising under certain rules of professional conduct.

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