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Summer Potpourri

September 8, 2015

Hard to believe that Labor Day is behind us and that some leaves are already changing colors.  It seems like just yesterday that summer started but the reality is that watching football and picking out Halloween costumes will soon replace treks to the pool and beach. The unofficial end of summer, however, is a great excuse to recap the most notable agricultural biotechnology related public policy actions over the last two and half months – activity you may have missed while you were vacationing or enjoying a barbeque with family and friends.

The most notable development occurred in late July when the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation creating a uniform labeling standard for foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and establishing a national GMO-free certification program, which will give consumers who prefer to buy non-GMO foods a transparent, consistent means of doing so. The initiative is modeled on the popular National Organic Program.

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act also would preempt state and local governments from enacting laws mandating the labeling of genetically engineered food products, protecting consumers, farmers and businesses from a costly, confusing patchwork of varying state-based requirements. H.R. 1599 cleared the House by a decisive 275-150 margin, with 45 Democrats voting for the measure. The measure has been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Nutrition for further consideration.

A few days after the passage of H.R. 1599, the White House officially responded to a petition supporting the mandatory labeling of GMOs. Specifically, the White House declined to act on the petition and instead deferred to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) consideration of similar petitions. A few days later, the White House issued a memorandum directing the federal agencies that regulate agricultural biotechnology – the FDA, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture – to review the Coordinated Framework, the longstanding regulatory structure that governs the technology.

In late August, a California woman filed a consumer fraud class action suit against Chipotle Mexican Grill, alleging that the restaurant is falsely claiming that the food it serves is GMO-free.

The complaint states that Chipotle informs consumers on its website that “some of its soft drinks contain GMOs” and that “its meat and dairy supplies come from animals fed with GMO grains”, but alleges that Chipotle does not post such disclaimers in its stores.

In early July, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed into law legislation encouraging mediation over biotech crop disputes. A short time later, Josephine County (OR) Commissioners decided to move forward with the implementation of an ordinance that county voters adopted in May of 2014 banning the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. A few weeks later, the County published a notice stating that anyone growing genetically engineered crops in the county must inform the Josephine County Sheriff’s office by September 4 that they are growing such crops and of a plan for phasing out the cultivation of those crops. On September 3, a lawsuit was filed challenging the ordinance.  The measure appears to be preempted by state law requiring uniform regulation of seeds and products of seeds at the state level.

Finally, the Oregon Secretary of State in early July determined that a proposed ballot measure activist groups were seeking to get on the ballot in November of 2016 – which would have undermined state laws preempting local governments from regulating seed and pesticides – did not comply with certain procedural requirements outlined in the Oregon Constitution.

In late June, a federal judge ruled that a Maui County (HI) ban on the cultivation of GM crops is invalid and that federal and state law preempt the measure, which voters narrowly approved in November of 2014. The ruling is similar to previous federal court decisions that struck down similar ordinances in Kauai and Hawaii County. All three decisions have been appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Earlier this week, websites were launched for the Family and Friends of Agriculture and Kauai Farming and Jobs Coalition. The first group is an organization that supports Kauai’s farmers and advocates for issues that help address the concerns of the local agricultural community, while the latter is an issue-based organization that serves as a resource for information about Kauai’s agricultural community.