Genetic Labeling and the Commerce Clause - September 2016

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What in the world is happening? Why would Farm Bureau, who has fought against the federal government overreach on issues like water quality and endangered species, suddenly be advocating for a federal solution for labeling of genetically modified foods?

Many folks fight against any kind of federal intrusion into the state's affairs by the federal government and we've certainly seen the federal government deeply wound the 10th Amendment to our Constitution which clearly relegates powers not designated by the Constitution to the states or the people. So why would we want a federal law infringing on a state's desire to label food products?

While the 10th amendment of the Constitution deals with powers not expressly provided to the federal government, Article I Section 8 deals with regulating commerce and that section has been stretched to its limits by the Supreme Court. Who would have thought that a preble's meadow jumping mouse could be considered an item of commerce and therefore subject to the endangered species act via the “commerce clause”? And just think about the number of plants that are regulated by the ESA under the commerce clause; some of which have never ever found their way across a county line, much less a state line.

Food production, however, is certainly something that travels across state lines. If we had to only consume the beef we grow in Wyoming we would be eating beef for more than three meals a day and then we'd still have to put some into cold storage. We grow significant amounts of malt barley in Wyoming and most of that product gets shipped out to beer makers like Coors and Budweiser. Sugar is only grown in a few counties in Wyoming but if we were to just use it for instate consumption we'd all be needing to take a lot more walks. So what's a person to do if one state has a labeling requirement for malt barley that's different from another state? What happens when California says that they want beef that has to be labeled if its been treated with antibiotic, but Texas doesn't care, but would like to have beef that has been treated with a de-wormer labeled?

And of course the issue of whether a product that has been genetically modified is one which will have a direct impact on our sugar producers. What should a label announcing a product is produced from a genetically modified plant say? And should one of the least populated states in the USA dictate to the rest of us what food sellers have to put on their packages?

One of the fascinating tours I went on at one time was a Safeway distribution center near Denver. That facility was responsible for distribution of food in Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado. Can you imagine the nightmare for a food distribution center if they had to segregate their cases of frozen corn by each state? Can you imagine, even in this day of computers, if a food processor had to attach a different label for each state that their product went to and then keep track of it? What would happen if a product labeled for Colorado ended up in a store in Wyoming or South Dakota?   Worse yet what happens if folks in Wyoming wanted more frozen corn than had been labeled for Wyoming? Would we have to get caravans of people up to drive down to the grocery store in Montana to buy what we needed until the food processor could package more frozen corn?

Anyone can see pretty easy why we need some standardization when food production crosses state line and that is exactly what the founding fathers anticipated when they drafted the commerce clause and that is what it should be meant for – not the tortured expansion of federal control over states and citizens that has occurred.

By Ken Hamilton, Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President