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Vermont Is About To Become The First State To Require GMO Food Labeling

After a number of false starts in other states, we'll soon find out what happens when people find out what's really in their food.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

After a number of close calls, including failed legislation in California, Oregon, and Washington, it looks like labeling for genetically modified foods (GMOs) is finally happening in the tiny state of Vermont. On Wednesday, the House passed a bill requiring Vermont to label foods with GMO ingredients, and Governor Peter Shumlin is almost certainly expected to sign the bill into law.

In addition to labeling in Vermont, the law also pushes legislation passed by Connecticut closer to action. The law requires producers to "label genetically engineered food in Connecticut as long as four states from the New England region with an aggregate population of 20 million also adopt a labeling provision." Maine has signed similar legislation, but requires five nearby states to sign GMO labeling laws.

The Vermont labeling law comes with lots of caveats: It doesn't apply to meat or milk products from animals that have been given GMO feed, or to food served in restaurants. It does, however, apply to packaged foods and fresh produce. Up to 80% of grocery store packaged foods would need to be labeled, according to the Burlington Free Press, mainly because they contain GMO corn or soy. Any products containing GMO ingredients would not be allowed to use the words "natural" or "all natural" on packaging. If passed, the bill would require labeling to begin on July 1, 2016.

The GMO initiatives in California and Vermont were voted on by the general public, and extensive anti-labeling campaigns funded by companies like Bayer Cropscience and Monsanto contributed heavily to their defeat. (In the last 20 days before the California election, the pro-GMO camp spent an average of over $1 million each day on ads). But since the Vermont legislation will pass without input from voters, anti-labeling organizations will have to find another way to fight, probably through lawsuits. The legislation is prepared for that; it includes a provision for a legal defense fund that will receive up to $1.5 million each year.

Anti-labeling groups argue that adding GMO labeling requirements will be a costly burden for producers—and those costs will be passed on to consumers. "I’ve heard the proponents say many times that this is a simple measure, that it’s basically putting a simple label on your box of granola bars, but it’s not," explained Kathy Fairbanks of Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks (the firm that represented the anti-labeling camp in California), in 2012. "If they decide to add labels, that carries a cost, and if they decide they need to change out ingredients, that’s a massive, massive cost."

More recently, Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for Biotechnology Industry Organization, told the Wall Street Journal that labeling would force farmers, manufacturers, distributors, and grocers to spend more money on record-keeping and compliance, and that the extra costs would translate into higher prices.

Perhaps some companies will just stop selling their products in Vermont—a state of 630,000 residents—altogether. But if the legislation leads to a ripple effect, where other states work up the courage to enact labeling legislation, the GMO industry may be in trouble. The European Union has strict labeling requirements, and as a result, GMO foods are rare. We'll soon find out if Americans are as put off by GMO labeling as our European counterparts.

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