Policy Report: Court actions on GMO food labeling

PCC, Center for Food Safety (CFS) and other plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit made some significant strides toward better genetically engineered (GE) food transparency when a U.S. District Court ruled in September that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was wrong to allow QR codes alone as a sufficient disclosure method for GE ingredients. 

The USDA must now revise its rules that allow for QR code-only labeling. The court dismissed claims made by PCC and other retailers that the rule infringed on their First Amendment rights to provide truth and transparency, but noted that the reason for the dismissal was because of USDA’s admission during the briefing stage that the law and rule were not intended to control retailer marketing and communications. 

The fall ruling involved the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) that went into effect Jan. 1, 2022, governed by 2018 rules set by President Donald Trump’s administration. 

“This is a victory for all Americans,” said Meredith Stevenson, staff attorney for the CFS, in a press release. CFS filed the case against USDA in 2020 on behalf of a coalition of nonprofits and retailers, including Natural Grocers, which operates 157 stores in 20 states, and PCC. 

“PCC believes our communities have a right to know what is in their food and how their food is grown in a way that is clear, easy to access for all, and doesn’t violate the First Amendment rights of retailers,” said Aimee Simpson, PCC’s director of advocacy and product sustainability.

While these wins were significant, there were also disappointing findings from the District Court, particularly the determination that the NBFDS Act did not require labeling for highly processed GE ingredients. 

“The NBFDS rule basically carves out an exception for any GE ingredient that is processed enough to be ‘undetectable.’ But chopping up something into undetectable pieces doesn’t erase how that ingredient was grown and the harm that GE farming and systems imposed on the planet and people,” explains Simpson. “We think consumers want to know how their food was grown, not just what is in it, and that was the intention of the NBFDS Act.”

CFS filed a notice of appeal concerning this ruling and others in November, which PCC and other original plaintiffs joined. 

The co-op has a long history of fighting for tougher labeling requirements, including its support for a failed 2013 state initiative that would have required labels on packaged foods containing GE ingredients.

With the national standard, PCC has voiced disappointment in the rule since its release in 2018, which forced it to roll back its own plans for a GE labeling program. The CFS lawsuit had followed a long campaign led by CFS for GE labeling in the U.S.

For ongoing updates on the lawsuit click here.

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