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Lawsuit Challenges Restrictive and Unclear GMO Food Labeling Rules

November 16th, 2022
Center for Food Safety

SAN FRANCISCO—Center for Food Safety (CFS) and a coalition of food labeling nonprofits and retailers filed an appeal last week with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging a previous ruling that allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to continue using the misleading terminology "bioengineered" and avoid labeling the majority of genetically engineered (GMO) foods. 

In the lower court case, CFS argued that USDA must label all GMO foods, refined or not, using terminology that consumers understand, such as "GE" or "GMO." CFS argued that the labels must appear on the package itself, without requiring consumers to scan a QR code or text a phone number for each food they purchase.

The district court held that the USDA's decision to allow GMO foods to only be labeled with a "QR" code was unlawful, and that USDA must instead add disclosure options to those foods under USDA's National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard. However, the court sided with USDA on several other challenges brought by the plaintiffs, upholding USDA's use of the new, unfamiliar terminology, "bioengineered," and disallowing the terms "GE" or "GMO." The court also ruled that USDA may continue excluding "highly refined" products, such as oils and some processed foods, from mandatory disclosure unless the GE material is "detectable" by a manufacturer's chosen testing method. 

"By allowing USDA to exclude highly refined foods from the mandatory scope of disclosure, the lower court's ruling allows food manufacturers to continue concealing the truth from consumers about how their foods are produced," said Meredith Stevenson, staff attorney at CFS and counsel for appellants. "Most consumers want to know if their foods are produced using GMOs, based on reasons including health and the impact of GMOs on soils and the environment." 

CFS originally filed the case in July 2020, challenging USDA's 2018 final rules for GMO labeling. Those rules were designed to implement a 2016 federal law that for the first time required the labeling of GE foods. Congress passed the law after several states (Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine) passed GE labeling laws, with other states poised to follow suit. The rules required food manufacturers to begin labeling in January 2022.

"We are committed to fighting for a transparent food system," said Tara Cook-Littman of Citizens for GMO Labeling. "The American people are clear about their desire to have GMO labeling. Currently the law as it stands, will not provide consumers with the clear information they deserve and so we must appeal on their behalf."

The appellants in the case are a coalition of nonprofits and retailers, including Natural Grocers, Puget Consumers Co-op, Good Earth Natural Foods, Citizens for GMO Labeling, Labels GMOs, Rural Vermont, National Organic Coalition, and Center for Food Safety.

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