July 1st has come and gone, and the specifics of this date are extremely important for food labeling activists around the united states. Specifically, this date has induced the first national Genetic Engineering Labeling Law in the United States. This law is plan and simple, and it requires companies to put in plain English if the food product within the packaging has ingredients that use Genetic Engineering. Much more can be read at Vermont’s Right to Know GMO site.
Like California laws regulating emissions and toxicity of fibers or chemicals that can cause cancer, Vermont’s Label law is significant in a federal way. The specific reason is that it fills gaps in regulations and laws that congress has not preempted or superseded. However, on the heels of this victory – there is trouble brewing in the air. This trouble is the “Roberts-Stabenow ‘Dark Act'”. What is this act, why is congress so intent on making their own regulations and what could happen if they don’t make their own food labeling laws – are the 3 things I want to look at today.
To begin with, the Roberts-Stabenow act is a food labeling act attempted to be implemented by congress. This would be the first labeling of Genetically Engineered foods at this level. Currently there are no existing regulations on this type of food product at the national level. There are roughly 50 state led efforts of varying degree. The most successful of these is the Vermont law, which went into effect on July 1, 2016. This law, simply put, requires all companies to put a simple statement if any of the ingredients are genetically engineered.
In the Federal system that we Americans live under, there are essentially 50 plus governments that create a standard of rules for the entire federal system. This is because each state has sovereignty within it’s own borders. Due to this sovereignty, there are existing situations where, either for the methods of prosecution or based on the will or need for safety of the people, individualized regulations have been created. Such laws such as Cannabis regulation are an example of such sovereignty. Truth in Food Labeling is another. While states have rights to create their own regulations within their borders, these can not be in direct negation or conflict with the federal regulations. States can for example, enhance requirements on air pollution locally that are stronger than say – EPA regulations.
This is especially true where Federal regulations have not set up regulations in their place. When a state does come up with regulations that are more stringent or fill gaps that congress has not, it is possible for the states to step in and fill the role on a localized or even national level. Have you ever seen on games shows like The Price is Right or Wheel of Fortune where they give away cars and the announcer says “this automobile meets or exceeds California Emissions Standards”? As we can see in this New York State Government Website, California Emissions Standards are being adopted by multiple states around the nation as they were more stringent that those enacted by the federal government. In order to sell their cars to the largest single US market, manufacturers had to meet the California Standards. Instead of making separate autos for the rest of the states, these standards have become part of national automobile sales by default.
Why is this important? According to the American Jurisprudence 2d – Constitutional Law ( available at most libraries by signing in through their web systems):
Tests Applied to determine preemption (Section 234)
“The United States Supreme Court has set forth three tests that it uses to determine if a state statute has been preempted or superseded:
- Whether the scheme of federal regulation is so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the states to supplement it
- Whether the federal statutes touch a field in which the federal interest is so dominant that the federal system must be assumed to preclude enforcement of state laws on the same subject
- Whether enforcement of the state statute presents a serious danger of conflict with the administration of a federal program” ( P 108)
Currently, the Vermont labeling legislation has gone into effect. We know this is true because of labels on food such as that produced by companies like General Mills. The Vermont Law is the first of its kind in the United States and that makes it special, because food companies have to produce labels on their food to meet the Vermont law. As companies find it cheaper to produce one label for sales throughout the US instead of labels for each state, currently the Vermont law is having a positive effect on clear food labeling throughout the country. Unfortunately, if Congress makes a new regulations, those regulations – which will apply to all 50 states by the nature of things, will supersede the impact of Vermont’s active law.
What many people may not understand is that this new proposed bill, will interfere with the state law by a matter of preemption. By reading further into American Jurisprudence we see the following:
” In the absence of express preemptive language, Congress’s intent to preempt all state law in a particular area may be inferred when the scheme of federal regulation is sufficiently comprehensive to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for supplementary state regulation. In determining whether Congress, through legislation, has so occupied a particular field as to preclude state legislation, the Supreme Court in order to discover the boundaries of the particular field involved, will look to the federal statute itself and read in the light of its constitutional setting and its legislative history. Further, a court will find preemption where it is impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal law and where the state law is obstacle to accomplishment and execution of Congress’s full purposes and objectives; what is a sufficient obstacle is determined by examining the federal statute and identifying its purpose and intended effects.” ( American Jurisprudence 2d, 16A p109)
This is some confusing legal jargon for most of us, myself included. So here is the main point – where a state has a right to make a regulation as part of it’s sovereignty, congress can override such regulation by making up it’s own set of rules. In this case, these rules will change plain and simple words on a box to the requirement that a consumer must scan a barcode to learn about what ingredients are inside a package of food.
By creating a new law that changes the regulations of food labeling, corporations are fighting back against these simple and inexpensive existing labels which are actually appearing across the United States. As someone who is currently outside of the mainland of the US, I find this battle to be quite interesting. Many countries already reject food grown within the US because of the chemical toxicity of ingredients grown with heavy pesticide use. Additionally there are concerns of horizontal genetic transfer, among other concerns.
So it’s July 1, 2016 and we have an effective Food Labeling law that has been voted on by the people, but because corporations have the power in congress – there will soon be a vote to overturn this existing law in such a way that gives Congress the final authority. Their solution will be designed to please the corporations, unless of course we do some simple things like picking up the phone and calling our local Congress person. Across the states there are rallies being planed for July 5th or 6th in preparation for the vote. You can search your local community activism pages, including March Against Monsanto on Facebook , try searching #DarkAct on Twitter or contact your local community activism entity like: Organic Consumers Association, Institute for Responsible Technology, or local Occupy entity.