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.

New York Times on the Rise in Unfair Competition Claims: Challenging Competitors' Advertising Is Increasingly an Important Part of an Overall Marketing Strategy

Stephanie Clifford wrote over the weekend in the New York Times about what’s behind the increase in unfair competition claims. Ms. Clifford reports:

The number of complaints over ads from competitors filed with the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the industry’s main self-regulatory program for national ads, is on track to set a record this year. There have been 82 formal complaints so far in 2009, after last year’s record of 84 challenges, a sharp increase from 62 in 2007 and 52 in 2006.

Among a discussion of what it means to file an NAD complaint versus court action and why both seem to be increasing is this salient quote from Linda A. Goldstein at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP: “How brands will deal with their competitors’ advertisements is an increasingly important component of the overall marketing strategy.”

Comment On Recent New York Times E. Coli and Beef Article: How Retailers Can Protect Themselves

Co-Authored By Guest Blogger Scott Hansen

According to its website, last Sunday’s New York Times article on E. coli and beef is among the most widely read pieces published by the newspaper this week. The article tells the story of a 22-year-old Minnesota dance instructor who was left paralyzed after being infected with a strain of E. coli in an “Angus Beef Pattie” she ate in fall of 2007. The article traces the story of her burger, points out the many limitations in the current system, and calls eating beef a “gamble.”

While the article is clearly targeted at meat producers and processors, food retailers selling beef products, such as grocery stores and restaurants, are also at risk. This piece is a reminder of the need for retailers to take steps to ensure proper systems and procedures for tracing food to its source (according to yesterday's statement by Secretary Vilsack, retail traceability of ground beef is soon to be a USDA requirement). The Times lauds Costco, which it says is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding.

Retailers should also be mindful of the utility of supplier agreements sufficiently tailored to limit liability or to procure insurance coverage. The greater protections afforded by well-drafted supplier agreements and carefully placed insurance are the best way to mitigate exposure.

Some may choose strong indemnification provisions and additional insured provisions. Another route, not yet the prevailing trend in the industry but perhaps in the near future, involves wrap-up insurance covering the entire supply chain, accompanied by covenants of cooperation between members of the supply chain.

Wrap-up insurance/covenants of cooperation approach has the advantage of potentially avoiding expensive and reputation-damaging litigation between members of the supply chain. Wrap-up insurance is also more likely to result in sufficient coverage to protect the retailer or restaurant chain.

No matter the path chosen, thoughtful placement of insurance coverage and confidence in supply chain contracts can help a food company weather the storm of a food-borne illness outbreak.

Happy New Year and Thank You

Happy New Year. Thank you for your support, readership and feedback for this site. Since we launched the blog in late February of 2008, the growth in readership has been extraordinary. I'm overwhelmed at the response. My hope is that the blog has provided some measure of assistance to those in the food industry. As always, I welcome your feedback, suggestions and critiques.

In the coming year, I hope to spend more time on the blog exploring trends in liability, insurance coverage and consumer claims related to the food industry. I also hope to discuss more deeply the anatomy of consumer-based food borne illness and labeling litigation.

You may notice a drop-off in the frequency of postings between February and April as I will be spending more time on the road. I apologize in advance. One of the things I will be doing (and posting about) is visiting with students and faculty at the Cornell Food Science program in Ithaca, New York. I hope to learn more about emerging technologies related to food production and safety.

California Menu Labeling Laws--Restaurants Beware of Asking What Your Customer Wants!

Yesterday, California became the first state in the Union to write into law menu labeling requirements. Like municipal ordinances recently enacted in New York City and Seattle, the California law requires certain “chain” restaurants to disclose nutritional information and calorie content information for certain items.

The law, to be phased in between 2009 and 2011, applies to restaurant chains with at least 20 locations that “offer for sale substantially the same menu items, or operates as a franchised outlet of a parent company . . . with the same name in the state that offer for sale substantially the same menu items.”

The new California law reads like a lawyer’s dream. Numerous exemptions are granted for certain grocery stores, “certified farmer’s markets” and others. Exemptions are also created to the exemptions. For example, “separately owned food facilities to which this section otherwise applies that are located in the grocery store” are not included in the “grocery store” exemption. To further add to the confusion, “grocery store” is defined to include convenience stores, though the law fails explain what that means. Does this mean that the law applies to a hamburger chain restaurant but not to the neighboring chain “convenience store” that sells the same hamburger but also a quart of milk? Does this make any sense? Won’t this statutue almost certainly generate significant litigation?

The labeling requirements apply to “standard menu items,” which are defined as “a food or beverage item offered for sale by a food facility through a menu, menu board, or display tag at least 180 days per calendar year . . . .” Yet a “standard menu item” does not include “a food item that is customized on a case-by-case basis in response to an unsolicited customer request.” What does "unsolicited customer request" mean? What about a sandwich shop that offers nearly infinite combinations of products? According to SUBWAY, “there are more than two million different sandwich combinations available" its menu.

Aside from being riddled with ambiguities, inconsistencies and impossible-to-interpret language, this blog has previously made the case that menu regulation should be the domain of uniform federal law and not inconsistent, piecemeal local ordinances. The California law is yet another argument in favor of federal preemption.

Section one of the California law cites national obesity statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and the federal Nutritional Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Nothing about this bill is specific to California. Because the law only applies to large restaurant chains, its impact is mostly on large national or regional companies. Ironically, the California legislature understood the problem of inconsistent regulation and chose to preempt all local and municipal regulation of restaurant menus. If menu regulation is an issue that needs regulation (and there are many good arguments why it does not), it should be taken up by Congress, the FDA and the USDA, not  states or local municipalities.