Another GMO Labeling Iniative on the Horizon, This Time in Washington

Last week on January 3, 2013, sponsors of Initiative 522 (I-522), a measure that would require the labeling of certain genetically engineered foods, filed their petitions with the Washington Secretary of State’s Office for review.

The filing of I-522 comes in the wake of Proposition 37, a similar initiative that was ultimately rejected by California voters in November 2012. If enacted, I-522 would require that any food offered for retail sale in Washington that is, or may have been, entirely or partly produced with genetic engineering to be labeled as follows:

  • In the case of a raw agricultural commodity, the package offered for retail sale must clearly and conspicuously display the words “genetically engineered” on the front of the package, or where such a commodity is not separately packaged or labeled, the label appearing on the retail store shelf or bin where such a commodity is displayed for sale must display the words “genetically engineered;”
  • In the case of any processed food, the front of the package of such food must clearly and conspicuously bear the words “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be partially produced with genetic engineering;” and
  • In the case of any seed or seed stock, the seed or seed stock container, sales receipt or any other reference to identification, ownership, or possession, must state clearly and conspicuously that the seed is “genetically engineered” or “produced with genetic engineering.”

Like Proposition 37, I-522 exempts certain food from the genetically engineered labeling requirements. Specifically, the following certified organic products, alcoholic beverages, medical foods, food sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant, products unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material, food made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves, food processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients, and any processed food that would be subject to the labeling requirement solely because one or more processing aids or enzymes were produced or derived with genetic engineering.

Now that the petitions have been filed, they must be reviewed to confirm that the sponsors of the initiative have obtained the necessary 241,153 valid signatures of Washington registered voters. Once the signatures are verified, the initiative will then be turned to the Washington State Legislature for further action:

  1. The Legislature can adopt the initiative as proposed, in which case it becomes law without a vote of the people;
  2. The Legislature can reject or refuse to act on the proposed initiative, in which case the initiative must be placed on the ballot at the next state general election; or
  3. The Legislature can approve an alternative to the proposed initiative, in which case both the original proposal and the Legislature's alternative must be placed on the ballot at the next state general election.

The Washington Legislature will convene on Monday, January 14, 2013 and will be in session until April 28, 2013. Stoel Rives attorneys will report on the status on I-522 as it moves through the Legislature.

In addition to Washington's I-522, a bill that would mandate the labeling of food and commercial feed containing "genetically modified material" has been pre-filed in the New Mexico State Senate. Senate Bill (SB) 18, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe), seeks to amend the New Mexico Food Act to require a disclosure label on any product containing more than one percent of a genetically modified material.

Californians to Decide Tomorrow Whether Prop 37 Sinks or Swims

Tomorrow, California voters will be asked to decide the fate of Proposition 37, a voter initiative that would require certain raw and processed foods that have or may have been “entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering” to be labeled as such, if sold in California. Proposition 37 contains a number of exemptions from the labeling requirement. Specifically, if passed, the following foods would be not be required to comply with the mandatory labeling provisions of the initiative:

  • certified organic products;
  • alcoholic beverages;
  • medical foods;
  • food sold for immediate consumption, such as in a restaurants;
  • products unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material;
  • food made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; and
  • food processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients.

Initially, Proposition 37 was supported by more than two-thirds of Californians who said they intended to vote on November 6, according to a poll from the California Business Roundtable and Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. On October 30, however, their latest poll indicated that support had dropped to approximately 39% and opposition had increased to almost 51 percent.

 

In addition to being the center of heated debate here in the U.S. over the past several months, the initiative has also received international attention. A recent article in The Guardian noted that “California’s ballot initiatives often take on huge importance. Often they are seen as laboratories for new ideas, that are adopted later in the rest of the country.”

 

Stoel Rives attorneys will be watching the outcome of the polls in California and will report on the results later this week.

California's Proposition 37 and WTO Agreements

Recently, I attended the annual American Agricultural Law Association (AALA) Conference in Nashville, TN. A topic on many of the attendees’ minds was California’s Proposition 37 or “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act.” A previous discussion of Proposition 37 can be found here.

If passed in November, the voter initiative would require certain raw and processed foods that have or may have been “entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering” to be labeled as such. In addition, Subsection 110809.1 provides that if a food is “genetically engineered” or “processed” as those terms are defined under the initiative, the food’s label may not, in California, state or imply that the food is “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or use any words of similar import that might mislead any consumer.

As election day nears, the debate over Proposition 37 has reached fever pitch. Proponents of the initiative urge that consumers are entitled to make informed choices about the foods they purchase. On the other hand, opponents argue that the initiative would be burdensome on both producers and retailers and would result in excessive litigation.

While attending the AALA Conference, I had the pleasure of chatting with Drew Kershen, the Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law (Emeritus) at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Professor Kershen recently published an article on a unique and important issue involving California’s Proposition 37. The article addresses whether Proposition 37 complies with World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreements and discusses the compatibility between the two.

In analyzing the relationship between Proposition 37 and WTO Agreements, more specifically the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Agreement) and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (the TBT Agreement), Professor Kershen concludes that the initiative “raises significant and difficult questions about whether it complies with the SPS Agreement or the TBT Agreement.” As a result, he notes that Proposition 37 can be challenged by member states to the WTO Agreements as well as the United States as a violation of WTO Agreements. However, it remains unclear as to whether those parties will act against Proposition 37.

Professor Kershen’s essay is a reduced version of a previously published article: “Would State-Mandate Labels for Biotech Foods Violate World Trade Agreements?,” Critical Legal Issues WORKING PAPER No. 181 (Wash. Lgl. Fndt., Sept. 2012), available at www.wlf.org/.

Stoel Rives attorneys continue to track the progress of Proposition 37 in California. Stay tuned for more updates as election day approaches.