Genetically Modified Food: Right to Know?

State by state, small farmers and individual consumers are squaring off against large food and agriculture corporations over genetically modified food. So far, it appears the food and agriculture industry has the upper-hand on the little guy. Connecticut state legislation requiring labels on genetically modified food did not make it past the committee stage. The measure was supported by small organic farmers, but opposed by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. A similar act also failed in the Vermont state legislature.

Despite failures in Vermont and Connecticut, supporters of genetically modified food labels achieved a small success in California. A petition to place the “Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” on the November ballot obtained more than the required amount of signatures. California voters will decide whether genetically engineered ingredients must be noted on product labels. If approved, the California measure could have a huge impact on the food and agriculture industries. Manufacturers would be forced to make California-specific labels or completely change their national labeling process.

The primary proponents of genetically engineered foods include agricultural corporations like Monsanto, which manufactures genetically modified seeds. In March 2011, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA), along with a group of family farmers, filed a lawsuit against Monsanto in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. The plaintiffs sought to overturn Monsanto’s control of genetically engineered seed patents. The filing was prompted in part by Monsanto’s lawsuits against farmers who had genetically modified seeds mixed into their crops without Monsanto’s permission. OSGATA et al. vs. Monsanto was dismissed in February 2012, but the OSGATA has recently appealed the decision. In addition to challenging Monsanto’s patents, the organization is fighting more broadly against genetically modified food. The OSGATA and other small farmers believe that their products will benefit if consumers are provided label information regarding genetically modified foods.

The FDA does not require genetically engineered foods to be labeled, and both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture approve genetically engineered ingredients before they reach the market. Whether or not consumers are aware, genetically modified products are common in grocery stores. California’s ballot measure will test consumer sentiment over genetically modified foods and address the question of whether people really want to know what they are eating.

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Cozen O’Connor has a national team of attorneys experienced in handling food contamination and product recall coverage matters related to first-party, third-party and specialty policies. The firm also developed a Food, Beverage & Nutritional Products Industry Team to provide advice and counsel to a wide range of companies connected directly and indirectly to the food and beverage industry.
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