- A coalition of GMO labeling advocates sued the federal government to force changes to the federal GMO labeling law. The lawsuit, against the USDA, Secretary Sonny Perdue and Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Bruce Summers, was filed by Natural Grocers, Citizens for GMO Labeling, Label GMOs, Rural Vermont, Good Earth Natural Foods, Puget Consumers Co-op and the Center for Food Safety.
- The plaintiffs want the required symbol — which currently denotes products as "Bioengineered" or "Derived from Bioengineering" — to use the more common terminology "genetically modified" or "genetically engineered." They feel that the rule requiring GMO disclosure only when the altered DNA is detectable hides information from consumers since most GMO crops are refined before use. They also want to allow manufacturers to use common terminology of "genetically modified" or "genetically engineered" for voluntary disclosure.
- The plaintiffs also object to allowing manufacturers to use a smartphone-scannable code for GMO disclosure information on labels.
In 2016, President Barack Obama signed the bill mandating label disclosure for food produced using genetically modified ingredients. Four years later, the arguments in this lawsuit are familiar to anyone who followed the debate over GMO labeling back then. The only thing unexpected about this litigation is its filing date.
The GMO labeling law is set to go into full effect in 2022, when large manufacturers — those with more than $2.5 million in annual receipts — will be required to have an approved form of disclosure on their food packages. Since the law's passage, the USDA has gone through the process outlined in the law to administer it. The department did a study on the effectiveness of using a smartphone-scannable label for information. It also released and took public comment on rules and potential symbols to put on packaging.
The final rule was published in December 2018, and it hasn't changed much since then. USDA has released clarifications about how often facilities that refine GMOs need to test their products and added products to the list that always needs disclosure, but there have been no major modifications in how the law is to be enacted. In fact, manufacturers have already started voluntarily complying with the law, using the "Bioengineered" symbol and adding, "This product contains ingredients derived through bioengineering" to food labels.
The issues brought up in the lawsuit are, for the most part, still relevant four years later. Around the time the law was passed, many advocacy groups argued that the labeling law did not offer the disclosure that consumers wanted. According to USDA data, GMOs are widespread in common food crops — 94% of all soy grown in the U.S., 83% of domestic corn and, according to statistics reported by Harvest Public Media, 95% of U.S. sugar beets. Many food products contain the refined products of these crops, which don't have to be disclosed.
"We can sit here and talk about bioengineering, but most consumers don't necessarily even resonate with the term 'bioengineering,'" attorney Robert Hibbert, a partner at Morgan Lewis, told Food Dive earlier this year. "So how consumers will react is going to become one of the bigger question marks."
This lawsuit also turns the timing and enactment of the law into a question mark. With the amount of time it usually takes cases to get through the federal court system, especially with delays from the coronavirus pandemic, it's not clear if there will be a final ruling before the law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2022. While manufacturers are likely to continue to voluntarily comply, this case might postpone the law's enactment for some time.
However, if the plaintiffs are victorious, it may be years before they can see the kind of disclosure they want. The debate over GMO labeling is more than a decade old. The years of pushing to create a federal labeling law became successful only as states including Vermont, Maine and Connecticut passed their own GMO labeling laws, which would have had specific labeling requirements for CPG products sold in their states. If the current law on the books is nullified, it will have been six years wasted — and likely the beginning of many more years to put something new in place, get it approved, and get it on labels.