In an unusual turn of events last week, the political fight over gun control had a major impact on the fight over food labeling. To pre-empt Democrats' sit-in protest to demand a vote on gun control legislation, the Republican leadership decided to adjourn the House of Representatives until July 5th. The move not only shut down the protest, it also ensured that on July 1st Vermont will become the first state in the nation to require mandatory labels on genetically engineered foods since the House has now run out of time to block the law from taking effect.
Over the past couple of years, food manufacturers have spent millions of dollars trying to block efforts to pass GMO labeling laws on the state and national level. Please check out the interactive map below by the Center for Food Safety to learn what states have passed or pending GMO labeling legislation.
After the failure of the so-called DARK Act, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle began working on compromise legislation that would preempt the Vermont law. On June 23rd, ranking senate agriculture committee member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) announced that the Senate had finalized a compromise bill and that it would give food companies three ways to let consumers know that foods contain genetically engineered ingredients: an on-package label, a USDA-developed symbol or an electronic code consumers can scan. Advocacy groups, including Just Label It and Food and Water Watch say the legislation "falls short" and want the labels on products themselves, but the USDA and industry groups in large part support the legislation. While Vermont's law is still set to go into effect, if this "compromise" bill passes both the House and the Senate, it will supersede the state's new law and could potentially block it from being enforced.
Details of Vermont GMO Labeling Bill
Starting July 1, 2016, H.112 - the Vermont Right to Know bill - will require mandatory labeling on foods sold in Vermont that are entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering. The bill defines genetically engineered foods as: Food that has been produced using laboratory techniques that insert genetic material (DNA) from diverse species of plants, animals, viruses, and/or bacteria, into the DNA of host plants or animals, such as corn, soybeans or salmon. The changes that are produced by this process are ones that cannot occur in nature. While the law goes into effect in 2016, enforcement won't actually start until Jan 1, 2017, when every covered food product will have to have a GMO label to be stocked and sold in Vermont. That means that, technically, Congress still has time to pre-empt the state bill.
According to the bill, genetically engineered raw agricultural products like fruits and vegetables must now be labeled with the words "produced with genetic engineering" on the package or the bin or shelf where it's being sold. Genetically engineered processed foods sold in the state must be labeled either "partially produced with genetic engineering" or "may be partially produced with genetic engineering" or "produced with genetic engineering." In addition, the bill prevents food manufacturers from labeling genetic engineering foods as "natural," "naturally grown," "all natural," "naturally made" or anything similar that may mislead a consumer. The law also states that the mandatory labels might include a disclaimer that the Food and Drug Administration does not consider foods produced from genetic engineering to be materially different from other foods.
However, the bill does leave room for some exemptions. For example, meat products made entirely of, or entirely from an non- genetically engineered animal are exempt from mandatory labeling in the state. Other exempt products include:
- Alcoholic beverages;
- Food that has been produced without the knowing or intentional use of genetic engineering, evidenced by a sworn statement from the supplier or producer;
- Food that would be required to be labeled because it contains genetically engineered processing aids or enzymes;
- Food with genetically engineered material which accounts for less than 0.9% of the total weight of the food;
- Food that has been verified as non-genetically engineered by an approved certifying organization;
- Food offered for immediate human consumption or food served at a restaurant;
- and Medical food.
Under the new law, retailers like grocery stores won't be liable for selling unlabeled genetically engineered (GE) foods if they didn't manufacture it. To avoid liability, retailers selling unlabeled produce must now also have a sworn statement from producers or distributors verifying fruits and vegetables aren't genetically engineered. However, if these statues or any other parts of the law are violated, retailers will be fined $1,000 per day per product.
Why Label GMO Foods?
US federal law doesn't currently require GE foods to be labeled as the FDA has determined that genetically engineered foods are not "materially different" from other foods, and therefore don't require special labeling. As a result, the FDA also doesn't conduct independent safety tests before allowing GE foods on the market. Vermont's labeling advocates argue that without labels, consumers have incorrect assumptions about whether their foods are genetically engineered. These groups pushed for mandatory labels on GE foods in their state in order to, "prevent inadvertent consumer confusion or deception, prevent potential risks to human health, protect religious practices and protect the environment."
This argument highlights the two main concerns consumers typically point to about eating genetically engineered food - potential health impacts of eating the products and the environmental impacts of growing them. While scientists have found little to no evidence to date about the negative health impacts of eating genetically engineered products, there is data suggesting that the production of genetically engineered crops has led to a major increase in the use of the herbicide glyphosate - or Roundup, its brand name -which the World Health Organization found to be a probable carcinogen. But the impacts of glyphosate aren't limited to people. The herbicide has been found to reduce biodiversity around farms and has been linked to the dramatic decline in monarch butterfly populations. Labeling genetically engineered foods would allow consumers to avoid products that were produced using agricultural practices that they do not approve of.
The bill's authors also underscore the fact that there is widespread confusion among consumers about what foods are genetically engineered and that consumers mistakenly believe that foods labeled as "all natural" are free of genetically engineered ingredients. They argue that labeling genetically engineered foods is a reasonable way to make sure consumers know what foods are produced with genetic engineering.
Vermont GMO Labeling Bill Impact and Implication
In anticipation of Vermont's labeling law and a national standard, national food manufacturers General Mills, Kellogg, Con Agra, Campbell's and Mars have announced they will be labeling all of their food, nationwide. The manufacturers explained that it would be too costly and complicated to label foods with GE ingredients only for sale in the tiny state of Vermont, and have opted instead to label all their products. According to Don Kettle, professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, the failure of the DARK Act greatly influenced the decisions of large food manufacturers to accommodate the Vermont law because, "if you fight and lose, how many times do you want to continue fighting?...it costs you money and bad publicity each time." As a result, the Vermont labeling has become the de facto national standard for all of us - that is, until a national standard is passed at the Congressional level.
2016 State Labeling Legislation Map courtesy of the Center for Food Safety, www.centerforfoodsafety.org.