Government Standards

Corporate food production interests yank the chains of Congress

Second update

House just can’t wait to pass this bill. It goes to the Floor on Thursday. Note: there is no comparable bill in the Senate.

stirring up a batter of trouble


In the ultimate of ironies, the Senate passed an amendment to their appropriation bill, that would require genetically modified salmon be given a GMO label. How to explain the inconsistencies?

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska)…downplayed concerns that salmon labeling would set a precedent for labeling biotech crops saying, “Corn doesn’t swim from one field to another and propagate with corn in another state. Fish move. Fish escape,” she said.

No, no. No one has ever heard of pollen floating on the breeze and contaminating organic crops.

How can you tell if Vermont will prevail in the lawsuit filed against its new GMO labeling law, Act 120? Easy: Congress decides to create a national anti-GMO labeling law. More on this in a moment. First, though, a recap on the court challenge.

In April, Judge Christina Reiss issued a decision denying in part and granting in part Vermont’s motion for dismissal, and denying, outright, the *plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction. The latter means that when you consider how speedy civil cases of this nature proceed through the court system, Vermont’s GMO label law will be able to go into effect in 2016.

The Judge quickly dismissed the dormant Commerce Clause challenge to the GMO labeling. After all, the basis for this challenge is that a state law must discriminate against out of state interests, and Vermont’s law applies to in-state as well as out-of-state interests. The decision also reflects a growing push-back against the application of the dormant Commerce Clause, possibly reflecting the Supreme Court’s own ambivalence about its application. I particularly liked the Judge noting that Vermont’s GMO labeling law won’t lead to a “patchwork of state laws”, because no other state has implemented a GMO labeling law, and hence, no inconsistency is introduced with Vermont’s law.

The Judge did feel that the plaintiff’s claim about the law’s reference to the use of “natural” on labels was strong enough to warrant denying Vermont’s request to dismiss the Commerce Clause challenge related to it. Yeah, that was one Vermont would have been best to just leave out of the GMO law.

In my original writing on the law, and the legal pushback from Lauren Handel, we felt the strongest challenge to the Vermont law was the Supremacy Clause, and whether the law was expressly preempted by the labeling requirements in the FMIA (Federal Meat Inspections Act) and PPIA (Poultry Products Inspection Act). The FDA’s FDCA and NLEA are both quite amenable to state labeling requirements, so aren’t really a challenge. The FMIA and PPIA, however, do have strict label requirements, and do assume federal authority of said labels.

Vermont was aware of this, and built into Act 120 exemptions related to meat and meat products, which should encompass those products that would be covered under the FMIA and PPIA. Where we felt there was the possibility of conflict was a product like soup. Soup is a manufactured product and, we assume, would be covered by Vermont’s Act 120. Soup can either contain meat products, or not. If the meat content exceeds 3% raw, or 2% cooked meat, then it would be managed by the USDA; otherwise, it’s managed by the FDA. This soup conundrum reflects the truly mish-mash nature of food safety handling in the US.

Since Campbells is part of the group suing Vermont, I fully expected soup to raise it’s head at some point. If it did, though, it quickly ducked. According to Judge Reiss’ decision:

In opposing dismissal and seeking preliminary injunctive relief, Plaintiffs narrow their FMIA and PPIA preemption claims to argue that some GE food products that contain meat, poultry, and eggs which do not fall within Act 120’s exemption for products “consisting entirely of or derived entirely from an animal,” 9 V.S.A. § 3044(1), are regulated for labeling purposes by the FMIA or the PPIA. They identify canned meat and poultry products and pre-made frozen meals containing meat or poultry as examples of products that fall within both statutory frameworks. In their Amended Complaint and declarations, however, Plaintiffs fail to identify even one of their members who produces a non-exempt GE food product that is covered by the FMIA or PPIA.

In other words, something like chicken noodle soup would either be exempt under the Vermont law, or isn’t a food product covered by the FMIA or PPIA. According to the FSIS guidelines:

Although FSIS has jurisdictional authority over food labeling for products containing meat and poultry, the FMIA and the PPIA explicitly authorize USDA (through FSIS) to exempt from its regulatory coverage food products which contain meat or poultry “only in relatively small portion or historically have not been considered by consumers as products of the meat food industry …

Soup is, typically, not considered a product of the meat industry, no matter how much meat it contains. And let’s face it: most canned soups really aren’t brimming with meat.

If there are no products not exempt under Vermont Act 120, but governed by the FMIA and PPIA, the plaintiffs can’t establish standing for this particular challenge. The only reason the Judge did not dismiss the preemption challenge outright is because the plaintiffs argued there may be small food producers who are making such a product who haven’t been identified yet.

We can only imagine food producers all over the country are working late into the night, trying to create and market some product that falls between the infinitely tiny crack that may exist between the Act 120 exemptions, and FMIA and PPIA governance.

Judge Reiss than took on the First Amendment challenge to Act 120. The plaintiffs claimed Act 120 violates corporate freedom of speech because Act 120 is “a politically motivated speech regulation”—it compels political speech. Well, this is just plain rubbish. The Judge agreed, though more tactfully:

A manufacturer who is required to disclose whether its products contain certain ingredients is not compelled to make a political statement even if such a statement “links a product to a current public debate” because “many, if not most, products may be tied to public concerns with the environment, energy, economic policy, or individual health and safety.”

The more compelling challenge related to freedom of speech was whether Act 120’s disclosure requirement is nothing more than just a satisfaction of consumer curiosity. This is what torpedoed Vermont’s statute related to labeling milk that contains recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (“rBST”) or recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (“rBGH”). However, unlike that statute, Act 120 did raise the debate about the safety of GMO products, in addition to other factors:

Act 120’s “Findings” and “Purpose” extend beyond the mere appeasement of consumer curiosity, and the State emphasizes that it is not making the concessions it made in IDFA. It cites to what it characterizes as an ample legislative record documenting the scientific debate about the safety of GE ingredients and the studies that have produced positive, negative, and neutral results. This record includes studies about the safety of consuming GE plant-based foods, as well as studies about the environmental impacts of GE and GE crops. The State also points to its interest in accommodating religious beliefs about GE, as well as its interest in providing factual information for purposes of informed consumer decision-making.

The Judge did feel the intermediate scrutiny of Act 120 as it relates to the First Amendment was a question of law, and should be debated during the court hearing related to the case. Therefore, Vermont’s motion to dismiss was denied. However, the Judge also felt that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail in this challenge in the court, and their request for a preliminary injunction was denied.

Judge Reiss wrote a long, thoughtful, and careful decision. Though the plaintiffs case was not dismissed outright, many of its challenges were dismissed, or had doubt cast on them as to their viability. And that leads us to HR 1559, the so-called Safe and Affordable Food Act, which just advanced from committee to the House floor. How can you tell if Vermont will prevail in the lawsuit filed against its new GMO labeling law, Act 120? Easy: Congress decides to create a national anti-GMO labeling law.

This bill seeks to preemptively undercut Vermont’s Act 120, before it has a chance to take effect. Many of its proponents are people who consider themselves tried and true “states rights” advocates…well, up and until a northern state, like Vermont, passes a bill that goes counter to select interests in their state. Can’t have them uppity Northerners telling nice southern and midwestern corporate boys what to do, no sirree.

Regardless of your stance on GMO and labeling, the bill should give you pause because it seeks to use Congress to bypass state statutes that reflect the interest of the people of the state and that have withstood a constitutional challenge.

That latter is important. Vermont’s Act 120 isn’t seeking to prevent gays from marrying or women from having access to abortion. It’s a statute impacting on commerce that ensures additional information is provided to consumers. More importantly, it’s a statute that has not failed in the courts—has not proven to be unconstitutional.

It has long been the right of states to impose stricter restrictions on commerce, particularly commerce related to food production, as long as such a restriction doesn’t unfairly impact out-of-state interests. Revoking this right because corporate agricultural interests aren’t happy about disclosing certain information is the proverbial slippery step to undermining other state laws related to food production and safety.

Want to drink raw milk? You can in states that allow it, but not in states that don’t, but this could easily change if the raw milk dairies had enough influence in Congress. Want to allow cottage industries to sell meat products or other food items long restricted? Again, no problem…if the industries have enough influence.

Of course, that’s the real key, isn’t it? These other industries don’t have the power to bring about change at the Congressional level, and that’s not a bad thing. But the GMO labeling law impacts on the very powerful, very wealthy, and very influential chemical, biotech, and food manufacturing interests, and therefore, this particular state law triggers Congressional action. And it does so not in the interests of the consumer—it is a deliberate attempt to withhold information from the consumer. Only the powerful benefit from this bill.

Regardless of your views on GMO labeling, you must deplore such an obvious act of buying Congress.

The biotech, chemical, food manufacturing et al interests have their chances in the court. Our Constitution is giving them their chance. They have the ability to bring their best arguments to the table and defeat Act 120…in the court. With this House bill, they chose not to do so. Instead, they’re putting pressure on Congress, and Congress is allowing them to. It’s a dirty move that is no less dirty because you may not agree with GMO labeling.

* The plaintiffs have filed an appeal related to the denial of a preliminary injunction, and asked for expedited handling of the appeal. This request has been granted, with back and forth filings due by September 8th.

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