Connecticut, the first state to pass a law that requires labeling for genetically engineered foods, is being joined by states with similar labeling requirements, but no labeling mandates. Despite the reluctance of some states to enact these labeling regulations, it appears that the trend is moving toward more stringent labeling requirements for food manufacturers. We, of course, as product liability defense attorneys and risk professionals, are keeping an eye on this trend, since expansions of statutory labeling requirements will present more risk exposure to food manufacturers.
Genetically engineered foods – sometimes dubbed genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – are engineered mutations of common agricultural products achieved by the insertion of a gene from an unrelated species, rather than through cross-breeding techniques. Presently, there are more than 40 species of genetically modified plants that serve a wide range of specific purposes, including insect resistance, herbicide tolerance and increased nutritional value. In the future, genetically modified plants may be used to produce pharmaceuticals, polymers, industrial enzymes, oils, starches and proteins .
Public Act No. 13-183, codified as Conn. Gen. Stat. §21a-92, applies to wholly or partially genetically engineered foods intended for human consumption and seed or seed stock that is intended to produce food for human consumption. The labeling mandate requires such food, seeds or seed stock to contain clear and conspicuous wording that the product is “Produced with Genetic Engineering,” in the same size and font as the ingredients in the nutritional facts panel on the food label. Furthermore, genetically engineered foods may not be labeled as “natural food.”
However, the Connecticut law provides that the labeling rules will take effect only after specific conditions are met. Specifically, the law requires that (1) at least four other states in the northeast enact similar laws with one such state contiguous with Connecticut and (2) the four states have an aggregate population of at least 20 million.
It is unclear when the Connecticut law will be implemented.
Agricultural trade groups, biotech firms and agricultural conglomerates have historically opposed these labeling regulations. Proponents of labeling, including local farmers, environmentalists and grassroots movements are organizing and unifying to have a greater voice in the push toward regulation. The enactment of the labeling requirements for GMOs in Connecticut is evidence that these groups have gained momentum, and while Maine has adopted a law similar to Connecticut’s, several other states, including New Hampshire  California, Oregon and Washington, have rejected similar laws.
Many have speculated that Connecticut and Maine are just the beginning of labeling regulations for genetically engineered foods. Soon GMO may be a household term just like “organic” is now.