An Urban's Rural View

A Question of Definition

By Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus

Is meat and milk from animals fed genetically engineered grain "GMO meat" and "GMO milk?"

A woman in California thought so. Last August she sued Chipotle for false advertising after the burrito chain boasted all its food is non-GMO. Not so, her lawsuit maintained -- the meat and dairy aren't GMO-free because the animals ate biotech feed.

On February 5, a federal district court judge dismissed the lawsuit before it went to trial (http://tiny.cc/…).

The woman's complaint had defined a GMO as an organism altered by genetic engineering. But she never alleged that the animals had been altered -- only that "the reasonable consumer would interpret 'non-GMO ingredients' to mean meat and dairy ingredients produced from animals that never consumed any genetically modified substances."

To this the judge replied: "The Court questions whether the complaint, as currently pled, plausibly supports such an interpretation."

Understand, please: This is a straw in the wind, not a nationally binding legal precedent. The GMO-definition problem wasn't the only reason for the suit's dismissal. And while decisions of the nation's 94 federal district courts can be cited as precedents, it's the rulings of appeals courts and the Supreme Court that matter most.

Still, it's an interesting straw in the wind -- a federal judge questioning whether a reasonable consumer would define "GMO" so strictly. Apparently Chipotle didn't define it that way. It brags on its website of being the first national restaurant company "to cook only with non-GMO ingredients" (http://tiny.cc/…). On the same website page it says its meat and dairy "are likely" to come from animals fed genetically engineered grain.

All this suggests the anti-GMO camp is divided over how to define a GMO. Consciously or unconsciously, the purists in this camp are influenced by the parallel world of organic food. For milk or meat to qualify as organic, the animal feed must meet organic standards. By analogy, then, the purists think non-GMO meat and milk should come from animals that aren't fed GMOs. The difference is the organic standards are well defined legally. What constitutes a GMO isn't.

Does this division in the anti-GMO camp matter? It could. In addition to leaving the door open to false-advertising lawsuits, it allows some states to enact GMO-labeling laws going one way on the milk-meat issue while others go the other.

Congress is working on legislation that would nullify state laws and establish a national labeling requirement. Republicans want the requirement to be voluntary, Democrats mandatory. Horse-trading lies ahead. Could including or excluding meat and milk become one of the horses?

The argument for some sort of national standard is that it would be preferable to a mishmash of conflicting state laws. Whether any national approach can get enough votes in Congress before Vermont's law kicks in July 1 remains to be seen.

Urban Lehner

urbanity@hotmail.com

(CZ)

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