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Use of The Term “Natural” In Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Legislation

Are you for or against GMOs?  Do you think the government should get involved?  Whether for or against legislation requiring labeling showing any Genetically Modified Organism contained in your food, the fact that the two sides are diametrically opposed on interpretation of critical aspects will ensure litigation.  In November 2012, California had its version of GMO legislation, known as Proposition 37, on the ballot.  California’s proposal attempted to limit the use of the term “natural” in retail food labeling and advertising for any processed food, regardless of whether it contained genetically engineered ingredients:

“…the food may not in California, on its label … state or imply that the food is ‘natural,’ ‘naturally made,’ ‘naturally grown,’ ‘all natural’ or any words of similar import that would have any tendency to mislead any consumer.”

“Processed foods” was defined as:

“any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any food produced from a raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing such as canning, smoking, pressing, cooking, freezing, dehydration, fermentation or milling.”

Such a broad and open-ended definition of “processed foods” would lead to increased litigation brought by trial attorneys suing food companies for any use of the word “natural” on labels or advertising, and could lead to the use of the law itself as subsequent proof of their interpretation of that term.  A plaintiff could simply shop for foods that include common GMO ingredients such as soy, corn, and sugar beets, and challenge any product that was not labeled. This would leave all producers and manufacturers exposed, even those who do not have GMO in their products.  The costs of defending these lawsuits would likely translate into higher grocery prices and hurt both consumers and the industry.

California’s Prop 37 lost in the end -- 51% to 48%.  Proponents have vowed that this was just the first attempt, and will continue to fight for the labeling.

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Author

Michelle Gillette