Sugar Beet Farmers Say They Should Not Be Required to Label Products As Bioengineered

Sugar beet farmer associations and the American Farm Bureau Federation filed a motion on Monday asking to intervene in a Northern District of California lawsuit asking the court to declare a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulation, which changes the rules for labeling of genetically engineered or modified (GMO) seeds, specifically referring to the seeds as “bioengineered” or BE instead of using GMO, as unlawful. 

The new rule also allows items produced with bioengineered seeds to not be labeled as such when the final product does not contain traces of the bioengineered material. The parties in the motion argued that they have a “significant protectable interest” in upholding the USDA’s final rule and that the legal action, if they are not involved, could harm their interests and reduce revenue from sugar beets. 

The plaintiffs filed an amended complaint in the lawsuit last month, and argued that consumers have the right to know how their food was produced and that the phrases “genetically engineered” and “genetically modified” or the acronym GMO are more familiar to consumers. They claimed that consumers are more likely to comprehend these phrases than “bioengineered.” The plaintiffs also claimed that any food that is bioengineered should display that on its label. The defendants, USDA and Sonny Perdue, filed an answer to the first amended complaint on Monday. 

The Final Rule discussed in the suit reportedly determines that some refined foods do not need to be labeled BE “when there is no detectable modified genetic material in the end food product even if certain crops used in the refining process were themselves bioengineered.” The plaintiffs disagreed with this, but the sugar beet associations said they “have a major stake in the matter” as all sugar beets grown within the United States and used in foods, beverages, or sold as sugar is bioengineered, but typically does not contain a trace of the bioengineered materials. 

The motion said, “not requiring a BE disclosure on refined sugar is both consistent with the 2016 Act and important economically to the sugarbeet industry, inasmuch as surveys and empirical evidence show that a BE label carries a stigma with consumers that would materially diminish the economic viability of the market for beet sugar.”

The Farm Bureau said it had similar interests in the case, because it represents families who grow bioengineered crops, which are later refined into products without bioengineered materials, similar to those represented by the sugar beet associations. 

The court will respond to the motion for the parties to become intervenors in a hearing on January 7, 2021. The associations, including The United States Beet Sugar Association and the American Sugarbeet Growers, are represented by Baker & Hostetler LLP. The American Farm Bureau Federation is represented by Crowell & Moring LLP. The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers with the Center for Food Safety, and the defendants are represented by the Department of Justice.