It’s official: as of 2016, foods sold in Vermont containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients will require that fact to be disclosed on labels.
Governor Peter Shumlin signed the landmark bill into law on May 8.
But even as a celebration broke out on the Statehouse steps, companies and associations like the Grocery Manufacturing Association (GMA) threatened to file lawsuits against the state — a reaction that is hardly surprising, since the law itself appropriates state money for its legal defense.
Other states like Maine and Connecticut have similar laws, but with provisions that delay the measures from going into effect until neighboring states pass their own GE labeling laws.
Three years in the making, the new law also prohibits labeling products containing GE ingredients as “natural,” “100-percent natural” or “all-natural.” Lawmakers included a $1.5 million legal fund in anticipation of lawsuits.
Some of the crops most likely to be genetically engineered include soy, corn, and cotton.
Controversy has surrounded the labeling of GE foods. It is an issue where emotions and science have played a role in proponents’ and opponents’ arguments.
Crafting a bill
“I think we did a really good job,” said State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, about crafting the GE labeling bill, of which she was one of 51 sponsors.
It took three years for the bill to wend its way from the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products, which Partridge chairs, to the Governor’s desk.
Within that time, Vermonters’ support for the right to know if a food contains GE ingredients became crystal clear, she said.
In crafting the bill, Partridge said the Legislature took compelling testimony and evidence, including testimony from individuals and people representing institutions, including the Vermont Law School and Consumers Union, the policy and action division of Consumer Reports.
In 2012, the bill made it from House Agriculture to the House Judiciary committee. The legislative session ended before the Senate could address the bill, said Partridge.
In 2013, the House refined the bill, she said, and the bill passed the chamber with overwhelming support.
This year, Senate Committees on Agriculture and Judiciary worked on the bill. The legislation also passed to the Senate Appropriations Committee because it included $1.5 million for a legal defense fund which the Senate added, she said.
Requiring GE labeling is more than an emotional debate, said Partridge, who cites scientific studies conducted outside the United States that point to GE ingredients causing health problems.
“I think this deserves some attention, and we need to take a look at this,” she said of health concerns.
Partridge added that more long-term blind scientific studies on the potential impact of GE ingredients on health, however, are still needed.
Evidence on the long-term effects of GE foods is lacking because companies hold patents on the genetically engineered organisms, said Partridge. Testing cannot happen without the patent holders’ permission.
Partridge said no one knows whether GE foods contribute to health conditions like allergies, ear infections, or leaky gut syndrome as some people have claimed. She also doesn’t know if GE crops containing the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a biological pesticide, can harm the environment.
GE foods are an unknown quality and people want to avoid them, they can’t under the current labeling system, she continued.
People want to know if their food contains GE ingredients and that’s why they pressed the Legislature for a labeling law, said Partridge.
“And that’s what we’ll go to court with,” if the lawsuits come, she said.
According to Partridge, more than 60 other countries require the labeling of food that contains GE ingredients.
The biotech industry wants consumers to believe that GE species are the same thing as a hybridized plants, said Partridge. She disagrees.
Yes, humans have cross-pollinated plants to grow bigger squash. Humans have also bred animals for certain characteristics, she said.
“But hybridization is not what we’re talking about here,” said Partridge.
Prior to genetic engineering, human manipulation of plants and animals did not venture outside the domain of what could happen in nature, she said.
Genetically engineering a plant or animal requires shooting the genes of one species (like a fish) into the cells of another species (like a tomato), she said. “And there’s no controlling what can happen.”
When asked about the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) threatening to sue the state over the new labeling law, Partridge responded, “the Grocery Manufacturers Association doesn’t want people to know what’s in their food. That’s very telling.”
Partridge said that if the state is sued over the legislation, that will be okay.
For her part, Partridge said that her constituents elected her to represent them and to do her best for Vermont. If lawmakers craft bills solely around the fear of lawsuits, they would accomplish nothing, she added.
“All you can do is your best,” said Partridge.
Feeding the world
While proponents of labeling GE foods celebrated Vermont’s new bill, opponents told a different side of the issue.
Many organizations and food companies believe that GE foods are safe or are, at least, not proven to be unsafe, citing the lack of scientific studies.
Supporters also point out GE foods’ potential to suppress food costs, reduce the use of pesticides, create blight-resistant crops, and bring nutrients and higher crop yields to people in areas plagued by hunger.
According to GE advocacy group the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CSAF), genetically modified food comprises about 70 to 80 percent of the food consumed.
In a press release, the GMA — the group that has already threatened the lawsuit — called Vermont’s law “critically flawed and costly for consumers.”
CSAF cited a study from Professor Bill Lesser from the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University in warning that “New York’s proposed mandatory GMO labeling bill would cost families an average of $500 per year at the checkout aisle.”
Instead of a crazy quilt of individual state regulations and policies regulating food labeling, the GMA supports federal legislation — the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act — now working through the U.S. House of Representatives.
The bill, cosponsored by two Democrats and two Republicans and introduced April 9, has been referred to the Subcommittee on Health.
The act would require a label on foods containing genetically engineered ingredients if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determines there is a health or safety risk, the GMA asserted.
“Any labeling of [genetically engineered] ingredients would therefore be based on science, not fear or the varying politics of the 50 states,” the GMA wrote.
“The FDA, World Health Organization, American Medical Association, and U.S. National Academy of Science have all found that foods and beverages that contain [genetically engineered] ingredients are safe and materially no different than conventionally produced products,” the association wrote.
Happy with the final bill
Overall, the Brattleboro Food Co-op is happy with the final bill.
“It does reflect our concern about our right to know what’s in our food,” said Co-op General Manager Alex Gyori.
The Co-op has had the issue of GEs on its radar for years.
About a decade ago, said Gyori, the store assigned someone to gather statements from vendors and manufacturers on whether the ingredients in their respective products were organic or contained GEs.
It was the store’s first approach to consumer education regarding GE ingredients, he said.
The Co-op’s latest effort, said Gyori, has been to label the food on its shelves as non-GMO whenever that information is known.
When asked why change the law to require GMO labeling and not simply stay with the voluntary “non-GMO” or “GMO-free” labeling that some companies use, Gyori said a more positive approach is always the best.
When a label lists that it contains certain ingredients, like whether it contains GEs, this information does not imply that the ingredient is good or bad, he continued.
But “GMO free” implies that it’s good that GEs are absent because the ingredient is bad for you, Gyori said.
As the new law goes into effect, Gyori said the potential ramifications for food producers and stores are endless and unknown.
“How it’s going to shake out is up in the air,” he said.
Some feet-on-the-street concerns for the Co-op: What will happen to products that are not labeled correctly? Will the store still be able to carry them? Of the correctly labeled products, will there be enough to fill the Co-op’s shelves?
From a pragmatic standpoint, Gyori also asks: Can a state of under 630,000 really make a difference?
In his opinion, the ultimate effect Vermont’s labeling law will have is to serve as “a guiding light for other states to show the importance” that Vermonters have placed on consumers’ rights.
Eventually, the movement will reach a tipping point where enough people will expect to know if their food contains GE ingredients, Gyori said, and then companies will respond by voluntarily labeling their products.
Gyori finds specious the argument that companies can’t label their food, as companies routinely change and update labels. Within the two years that it will take before the Vermont bill goes into effect, most companies will have gone through a label printing cycle, he said.
For the Co-op, the importance of GE labeling goes beyond consumer choice.
“Nobody really knows for sure the impacts of GEs, but there is a growing body of knowledge that is starting to suggest” potential health risks related to consuming GEs, Gyori said.
The risk to people is only part of the equation when considering the overall health of the food chain, he said. There are indications that GEs have negative effects (“collateral damage”) on non-human life, including insects, he said.
GEs can contaminate crops of farmers trying to produce non-GE crops, Gyori noted.
For its part, the Co-op, a member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, will continue helping with advocacy and keeping the ball rolling. It will continue to educate its membership through activities and through outreach, including the grocery’s newsletter, he said.
Readying for the fight
Vermont will likely square off with companies that have more money and lawyers than the state does, said Attorney General William Sorrell.
In Sorrell’s opinion, in both state and federal courts, “We have won the vast majority over the years that Vermont statutes have been attacked.”
A presumption exists in the law that legislatures act on behalf of their citizens and, therefore, their actions are proper and valid, he said.
Sorrell warned, however, that the federal judiciary has shifted more to the right of the political spectrum, especially in the areas of political campaign spending and affording corporations greater First Amendment rights.
One bright spot in a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has resulted in more financial disclosure obligations for campaign spending, he said, but he said it’s possible the Roberts court will soften some regarding mandated disclosure.
This softening might extend beyond campaign finance reports to product labeling, said Sorrell.
In 2012, Entergy took the state to court over Vermont nuclear regulation, which, of course, applies only to the company’s Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor. The company claimed the state had trespassed into territory open only to the federal government: nuclear safety.
Entergy lawyers used examples from the legislative record to make its point that when lawmakers regulated VY they were, in reality, regulating nuclear safety.
The court agreed.
“The comments of a few hurt us in the Entergy case,” said Sorrell.
With the GE labeling law, Sorrell feels that the Legislature built a solid record through its testimony gathering and debates.
“We’re going to be in for a real fight — there’s no question,” Sorrell said.