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Planting the Seed: Three Takeaways from Barnes & Thornburg’s Ag & Food Conference

 

On May 23, Barnes & Thornburg held its annual “Planting the Seed” conference, which focused on legal and regulatory concerns facing companies in the agriculture, animal health and food processing industries. This year’s conference featured speakers from Crop Life America, Elanco Animal Health, Dow AgroSciences, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Colorado State University, Purdue University, and the National Agriculture Law Center at the University of Arkansas. More than 100 clients and companies attended the conference hosted in our Indianapolis office.

 

I participated as a host and attendee, and gleaned three important takeaways to share with our readers who manufacturer, distribute and sell consumer and agricultural products, as well as the attorneys who represent them.

 

Product Liability and Consumer Protection Litigation Remains a Concern

 

A patchwork of local and state laws, as well as new trends in product liability and consumer protection litigation, continue to pose threats to the food and agriculture industries. The agriculture industry, and in particular those involved in crop protection and biotechnology, face continued litigation pressures to challenge misguided state and local laws that attempt to limit or prohibit the use of federally regulated genetically modified organisms, as well as crop protection products, including insecticide, fungicide and herbicide products. Crop protection product manufacturers also face continued post-registration litigation under the Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Litigation involving the food industry continues to arise out of state and federal consumer protection statutes, labeling laws and regulations, and some plaintiffs are positing new theories of liability such as “slack-fill,” which challenges the amount of useful or edible product in food packaging.

 

Decreased Regulation is Helpful, But Uncertainty is Not

 

A common theme among our speakers was optimism regarding the new presidential administration’s focus on streamlining and decreasing the regulatory burdens on agribusinesses and food companies. However, all agreed that the current instability in the political climate was a challenge for businesses seeking to comply and stay abreast of the regulatory landscape, and that federal regulators must still have the resources necessary to do the important work of reviewing new product applications and issuing licenses. Speakers also agreed that legislation limiting the export of agricultural crops is not favored by the ag community.

 

Information and Advocacy Are Key to Managing Consumer Relations

 

Both Karin Moore of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Rajan Gajaria of Dow AgroSciences discussed the responsibility of the food and agriculture industries to be proactive in sharing information and engaging in meaningful dialogue with consumers. In an era of misinformation and rising product liability and consumer protection litigation, it is more important now than ever for all of us with ties to the food and agriculture industries to respond to consumer concern with information, transparency, and compassion. Moore highlighted the “Facts Up Front” and “SmartLabeling” strategies of the food industry, which focus on putting nutrition and product information at the consumer’s fingertips. Gajaria provided an engaging presentation on “Agvocacy” and the “Grow the Conversation” initiative – all aimed at communicating with consumers. The speakers emphasized when the industry is truthful, transparent and proud of what it does, it can help consumers and the general public understand and appreciate our agriculture and food systems.

 

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