In June, Connecticut became the first state to require mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, although the law will not take immediate effect.
Companies have some time to prepare as the new law will not take effect unless and until two triggering factors occur. First, four other states – including one bordering Connecticut – must enact similar legislation. Second, any combination of states in the Northeast (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, or Vermont) with a combined population of 20 million residents must also pass parallel laws.
The triggers were added to the bill as a compromise to opponents, explained Governor Dannel P. Malloy. He said the provisions are intended to protect local farms by “ensuring that the regional agricultural market has adopted the new labeling system before placing an undue and disproportionate burden” on Connecticut farmers.
“This bill strikes an important balance by ensuring the consumers’ right to know what is in their food while shielding our small businesses from liability that could leave them at a competitive disadvantage,” Governor Malloy said in a statement. Although Governor Malloy has indicated his intention to sign the bill into law, he has yet to do so.
The new law defines “genetic engineering” as “a process by which a food or food ingredient that is produced from an organism or organisms in which the genetic material has been changed through the application of: (A) In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) techniques and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; or (B) fusion of cells, including protoplast fusion, or hybridization techniques that overcome natural physiological, reproductive or recombination barriers, where the donor cells or protoplasts do not fall within the same taxonomic group, in a way that does not occur by natural multiplication or natural recombination.”
All food intended for human consumption must be labeled “Produced with Genetic Engineering,” either on the bill of sale accompanying wholesale sales or clearly and conspicuously on the packaging for retail sales. Similar labels must also appear on raw agricultural commodities as well as on seed or seed stock.
The Connecticut law exempts four categories from the labeling requirements: alcoholic beverages; produce sold at roadside stands, pick-your-own farms, and farmers’ markets; food intended for immediate consumption that is never packaged for retail sale; and meat from animals that were not genetically modified but were fed genetically modified foods or given genetically modified drugs.
The Commissioner of Consumer Protection is charged with enforcement. Violators are subject to a civil penalty up to $1,000 per day, per product (although the penalty cannot be multiplied by the number of individual packages of the same product offered for sale).
To read Connecticut’s new law, click here.
Why it matters: The passage of Connecticut’s law has spurred other states to push similar legislation forward. The Maine legislature passed a bill nearly identical to Connecticut’s (with comparable triggering provisions), although Governor Paul LePage has yet to sign it into law. More than 20 other states (including required Northeast locations such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont) are also considering GMO labeling laws, and a federal bill – the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act – was introduced to both houses in April. Despite the recent success, however, the bills still face significant challenges from opponents in the food and agribusiness communities. In California, for example, voter initiative Proposition 37 narrowly failed to pass after a hard-fought battle on both sides of the issue.