The Vermont legislature has approved a bill making that would make the state the first in the country to mandate the labeling of food with genetically modified organisms.
GMO’s — or genetically modified organisms — are often used in crop plants, changing them at their genetic roots to be resistant to insects, germs or herbicides.
The House took final action Wednesday and voted 114-30 to support a bill requiring any product containing GMOs to be labeled. It includes produce and processed foods and carries a maximum civil penalty for violators of $1,000 per day per product. Progressive state Senator David Zuckerman sponsored the bill. “It gives consumers the information that that product may contain GMO ingredients, or it does contain GMO ingredients. So it’s information that’s available like any other pieces of information that are available to consumers on those nutritional labels.”
Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility Public Policy Manager Dan Barlow says the GMO labeling bill is an example of a small state taking action with national implications. “This bill will bring increased transparency to the food system. And also quite frankly at VBSR we were really concerned about the livelihood of the Vermont brand. Vermont has spent a considerable of time and effort and money over the years building up the Vermont brand. So when someone buys a Vermont food product on the west coast they have certain expectations for that product, including it be healthy and natural. So we’re really concerned with GMO’s mixing into our food system that it would undermine all the work that Vermont has done to build up the Vermont brand.”
Barlow adds that his group had requested the two-year delay in implementation. “Some companies may have to change their packaging. Other companies are seeking non-genetically-engineered alternatives. So they’re at different ingredients and seeing the availability is. Our message to the Legislature is yes, let’s do this as a state. It’s clearly not going to happen on the federal level anytime soon. But let’s also be flexible to allow our growing community of small food producers to either change their ingredients or change their packaging.”
While the Vermont Grocers’ Association is not opposed to GMO labeling, President Jim Harrison says they don’t believe Vermont should go it alone and be the only state mandating such labels. “There are a number of logistical issues. For example, if companies decide to label separately from Vermont then wholesales, distributors, etc. would need to have two sets of products. One for Vermont and one for other states. That would add, my guess would be, an enormous cost on the whole system. If they just label it across the board, then that’s a different story, and I think that’s the expectation that many have. Whether or not national companies choose to change their national labels just for Vermont is really an open question.”
The measure includes a provision that sets up a state defense fund because it’s expected the new law will trigger lawsuits by biotech and food manufacturers. State Attorney General Bill Sorrell is already preparing for litigation. “This is in all likelihood a free speech issue in that the industry is being to compelled to speak by disclosing on their labels that they have GMO’s in their products. This is not just a few products. It’s estimated that of processed foods that 80% of what we see on grocery store shelves contain GMO’s and will have to have these labels. The question will be whether the state’s interest in seeing that consumers are advised of the presence of GMO’s in the products being bought and is the public concern strong enough to outweigh the manufacturers’, the food industry’s rights to not have to print this on their labels.”
Vermont’s GMO labeling law is effective July 1, 2016.