Jan 27, 2015
Labeling a controversy

Gary Pullano, Vegetable Growers News Assistant Editor, is providing blog coverage of the 2015 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention.

Blizzard conditions (actual and fictional) in much of the northeast didn’t appear to significantly impact attendance at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit & Vegetable Convention that kicked off Tuesday in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Part of the juggling act by attendees is determining which educational sessions have the most meaning to the success of their operation, and what ideas and concepts can best impact – or threaten – their bottom line.

Kick off an early-morning session with discussion of genetically modified food labeling legislation, and it’s apparently a non-starter in this crowd consisting largely of specialty crop growers.

But should it be?

Only a couple dozen folks heard Ross Pifer, director of the Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center at Penn State Dickinson School of Law, present a thorough update on GMO labeling developments.

The epicenter of the controversy currently resides in New England, with Vermont's law requiring labeling of genetically modified food facing a challenge from food industry powers in a case that is being closely watched by other states contemplating such legislation.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and other food trade groups filed a federal lawsuit last June challenging Vermont’s genetically modified food labeling law, the first in the nation slated to take effect, arguing it interferes with their free speech rights and regulates interstate commerce.

The groups, including the Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association and National Association of Manufacturers, allege that the law could force them to change their labels nationwide to avoid running afoul, or alternatively create Vermont-only distribution channels.

After enactment of conditional legislation in Connecticut and Maine (tied to what other states may or may not do), Vermont became the first state to initiate mandatory GMO labeling with a so-called “no strings attached” law. Pursuant to the Vermont statute, all food that is offered for sale in the state after July 1, 2016 must bear an appropriate label if that food is “entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering.”

Exemptions, similar in nature to those provided in Connecticut and Maine legislation, have been provided. Labeling is not required for the following products: food derived from non-genetically modified animals; food that has been raised, or “produced” with the “knowing or intentional” use of GMO food or seed; food that uses genetically engineered enzymes; alcoholic beverages; processed food products containing a de minimus amount of genetically modified food ingredients; food that has been verified by an independent organization as not having “been knowingly or intentionally produced from or commingled with food or seed produced with genetic engineering,” food prepared for immediate consumption, and medical food.

The Vermont case was accompanied by a slew of ballot measures and legislative action in several states that have led to mostly benign results in the past few years – but none of them holding the potential impact of the Vermont law should it survive legal challenges.

At this point, it’s “the product, not the process” that would be regulated in virtually all cases of GMO labeling requirements, Pifer said, meaning it’s the retailer who would face the music – and potential decline in business – from the get go.

Back to the question: should specialty crop growers care? They should, since those same retailers will be holding their vendors accountable for accurate and reliable product information, a process and impact that at the very least will likely trickle down in some manifestation to the farm level.

That’s not to mention the overall debate on the use of GMO to produce crops in general. This issue is a big deal from a lot of different perspectives, and will remains so.

For now, all eyes are on Vermont, but dozens of states are poised to fall in line in quick order. Yours could be one of them.

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