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.

FDA Commissioner Nominee Faces Confirmation Hearing

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, President Barack Obama’s nominee to oversee the Food and Drug Administration, is appearing before a U.S. Senate committee this afternoon regarding her nomination. The confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee began at 2:00 p.m. ET. Streaming video is available here.

The Associated Press is reporting that, if confirmed, one of Hamburg’s first tasks will be overseeing development of a vaccine for the H1N1 influenza virus. In Hamburg’s opening remarks to the Senate committee that were made available to reporters earlier today, she also noted that food safety will be among her top priorities. “Important steps must be taken to better protect the nation’s food supply from farm to form,” Hamburg said.

NY Senator to Propose Director of Food Safety Oversight

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is expected to introduce legislation today to strengthen U.S. food safety. Newsday.com is reporting that Sen. Schumer’s bill will call for a director of food safety oversight who would be a senior-level director at the Department of Commerce. The proposed director would focus exclusively on food safety.

Senator Durbin Likely to Introduce New Food Safety Legislation

The National Grain and Feed Association has reported to its members that Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), is likely to reintroduce food safety legislation next week.  Senator Durbin has introduced similar bills in prior Congresses.  Likely, co-sponsors include Senator Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) committee, and Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.  According to NGFA, the bill would require participants in the food chain to develop food safety plans to identify hazards that could adversely affect human or animal health.

Because of the peanut butter recall, there may be an attempt to take the bill straight to the Senate floor, bypassing committee hearings.