Friday, May 20, 2016

FDA Finalizes Food Facts

On May 20, 2016, the United States ("U.S.") Food and Drug Administration ("FDA") released the final version of the revised food and drink labels legally-required to accompany most food and drink sold in the U.S..  Here is an example of a new label:
The differences between the old and new food labels are subtle, but not trivial.  Among the changes are requirements that sellers use more realistic serving sizes reflective of how much a typical person would actually eat at one sitting.  For example, the old regime allowed preposterous serving sizes such as three lonely potato chips!  The new label must list much larger amounts.  In addition, a new subcategory of carbohydrates must list the amount of sugars added to a serving of food or drink above and beyond those sugars found in the preprocessed version of that food or drink.

Although food and drink labels are often ignored by consumers, they do provide a valuable source of nutritional information for any who care to read them.  This information can be crucial to people on special diets or with conditions such as diabetes.  The FDA could have opted for a more revolutionary approach to revamping label design, but, instead, the agency appears to have decided on a gradual, evolutionary approach to improvement.  At least the latest changes might reduce the impression that anyone who eats more than three potato chips at one sitting - a nearly-universal trait - is a shameless glutton.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

National Academies On GE Crops

The influential United States National Academies ("NAs") released their latest assessment of the environmental and health risks of genetically-engineered ("GE") crops on May 17, 2016.  Despite widespread, and often inchoate, anxiety among the public, GM crops have rapidly displaced non-GE crops around the world.  So, are they safe?

The NAs' report, entitled Genetically Engineered Crops:  Experiences and Prospects, provides a comprehensive review of existing scientific evidence.  Although they hedge their answers, as befits the complexity of published studies, the NAs conclude that evidence for negative consequences of GE crops is generally lacking.  They suggest that the economic effects lean to the positive side of the cost/benefit ledger:
The available evidence indicates that GE soybean, cotton, and maize have generally had favorable economic outcomes for producers who have adopted these crops, but outcomes have varied depending on pest abundance, farming practices, and agricultural infrastructure. Although GE crops have provided economic benefits to many small-scale farmers in the early years of adoption, enduring and widespread gains will depend on such farmers receiving institutional support, such as access to credit, affordable inputs such as fertilizer, extension services, and access to profitable local and global markets for the crops.

The NAs concluded that neither humans nor animals appear to have been harmed by consuming food derived from GE crops:
The committee carefully searched all available research studies for persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of foods derived from GE crops but found none. Studies with animals and research on the chemical composition of GE foods currently on the market reveal no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health and safety than from eating their non-GE counterparts. Though long-term epidemiological studies have not directly addressed GE food consumption, available epidemiological data do not show associations between any disease or chronic conditions and the consumption of GE foods.
And, the NAs found little evidence that GE crops harm the environment:
The use of insect-resistant or herbicide-resistant crops did not reduce the overall diversity of plant and insect life on farms, and sometimes insect-resistant crops resulted in increased insect diversity, the report says. While gene flow – the transfer of genes from a GE crop to a wild relative species – has occurred, no examples have demonstrated an adverse environmental effect from this transfer. Overall, the committee found no conclusive evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems. However, the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes often made it difficult to reach definitive conclusions.

Nevertheless, the NAs do warn that biotechnology is a dynamic and evolving set of techniques, and suggest ongoing regulatory oversight:
Emerging genetic technologies have blurred the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding to the point where regulatory systems based on process are technically difficult to defend. The committee recommends that new varieties—whether genetically engineered or conventionally bred—be subjected to safety testing if they have novel intended or unintended characteristics with potential hazards.
  This report will not be the final word on GE crops.  In fact, the popularity among consumers of food they perceive as "non-GE" represents a substantial, continuing challenge to GE crops, with increasing demands by the public and national regulators that GE and non-GE crops be carefully sequestered from one another to avoid cross-contamination.  Time will tell whether or not scientific assessments such as the NAs' will change public opinion.  In the meantime, both supporters and opponents of GE crops have the benefit of this new and authoritative source of evidence and analysis from the NAs.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Closing The (Google) Books On Fair Use

The United States Supreme Court wrote the final chapter on Authors Guild v. Google, Inc.. on April 18, 2016, simply ordering that
[t]he petition for a writ of certiorari is denied. Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of this petition.
Lexvivo previously covered the Google Books case on October 16, 2015, in Book 'Em Google!.  Perhaps now we can all turn the page on this type of fair use.

However, never fear, intellectual property aficionados, for, on May 2, 2016, the Supremes also issued the following two orders:
15-866  STAR ATHLETICA, L.L.C. V. VARSITY BRANDS, INC., ET AL. The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to Question 1 presented by the petition. 
15-927  SCA HYGIENE PRODUCTS V. FIRST QUALITY BABY PRODUCTS The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted.
The former involves a copyright case probing the contours of functionality in copyright.  The latter is a patent case on whether laches is available as a defense to infringement within the statutory six-year window for recovering damages authorized by 35 U.S.C. §286 (Time limitation on damages).

So, there will be much more intellectual property fun to come.