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California Judge May Ask FDA to Act on Genetic Food Labeling

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page and our Millions Against Monsanto page.

A federal judge in California is considering whether to temporarily halt a proposed class action in order to allow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to determine whether genetically engineered foods can be labeled "all natural."

The proposed class action in U.S District Court for the Northern District of California was brought in 2012 by customers who purchased Gruma Corp's Mission tortilla chips that were labeled "all natural," despite the alleged presence of genetically engineered corn.

On June 7, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said she tentatively planned to stay the case for six months to allow the FDA to determine whether "natural" or "all natural" labels should reflect the presence of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and bioengineered ingredients.

Currently, the FDA does not require genetically engineered foods to be labeled, and has not formally defined "natural" for labeling purposes. Some consumer and health groups have been lobbying for the agency to take a stronger position on genetically engineered ingredients.

In the Gruma case, the plaintiffs have opposed the judge's suggestion that the case be halted to allow the FDA to make a determination. They cited the agency's past inaction on the matter and say a quick regulatory resolution is unlikely.

The company argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the FDA, not the court, is the proper authority on questions relating to food labeling.

Rogers held a hearing on the motion to dismiss on Tuesday. She did not issue any rulings and instead asked for additional briefings from both parties, according to minutes from the hearing.

In the absence of mandatory labeling standards, some consumers, including the plaintiffs in the Gruma case, have taken food manufacturers to court over food labels they deem to be misleading.

Rogers said in her June 7 order that "under the circumstances, deference to the FDA's regulatory authority is the appropriate course." She said she was inclined to give the agency six months to make its determination.

CAMPBELLS AND COCA-COLA CASES

In opposing Rogers' tentative order, plaintiffs pointed to a May 28 ruling from a federal judge in Florida in a case involving claims that certain Campbell's soups were not "all natural" because they contained genetically engineered ingredients. In that ruling, the judge said that courts have declined to dismiss false advertising claims based on "natural" labels "because the FDA simply does not regulate those claims."        

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