US government target of GE labeling lawsuit

Published on
August 31, 2017

The United States government is not complying with a federal law on labeling genetically engineered foods, a new lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety alleges.

Filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on 25 August, the Center for Food Safety, an environmental nonprofit based in San Francisco, California, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not studied “electronic and digital disclosures” (such as QR codes) for GE foods, as opposed to on-package text, as is required by the law. The GE Labeling Act went into effect in 2016.

“That study was required to be finished by July 2017, with an opportunity for public participation, but USDA never completed the study or published it for public comment,” CFS said in the statement.

“We won’t let the Trump Administration get away with ignoring the law,” said George Kimbrell, legal director for CFS. “Because this is a controversial topic and crucial decision, Congress required this QR code study be completed by July and that the public’s views be included. In court, statutory directives matter – not tweets.”

The GE Labeling Act requires USDA to establish federal standards for labeling by July, 2018.  The labeling study will inform the agency’s ultimate decision, “which is why it was required to be completed a year earlier” CFS said. “ One of the most controversial aspects of the law is how it will require companies to label GE foods, and whether companies will be able to forgo clear, on-package labeling through the use of QR codes and other digital disclosures.”

There are studies that show that American consumers are under an incorrect assumption about whether the food they purchase is produced with genetic engineering, because the lack of mandatory labeling is confusing and misleading, CFS said in the complaint.

According to the law, USDA can consider several options: on-package text, a GE symbol on packages, or “electronic or digital disclosures,” which would require shoppers to use a smart phone to scan packages to access a website or call a toll-free number for every single product to find out if it was produced with genetic engineering.  

“Americans deserve nothing less than clear on-package labeling, the way food has always been labeled,” Kimbrell said. “Allowing companies to hide genetically engineered ingredients behind a website or QR code is discriminatory and unworkable.”

The lawsuit comes as Massachusetts, U.S.A.-based company AquaBounty Technologies is scaling up production of its AquAdvantage salmon, the world’s first genetically engineered salmon. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled in 2015 that the salmon, which is Atlantic salmon modified with a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a promoter sequence from an ocean pout that enables it to grow faster, is safe to eat. 

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