Vermont Becomes First US State to Require GMO Labeling

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On May 8th, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill into law requiring special labels on all foods sold in the state that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The law makes Vermont the first US state to require disclosure GMO disclosure.

Genetically modified organisms

The bill, which applies only to packed foods sold at retail locations, does not cover meat or dairy made from animals that consumed GMO feed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 60%-70% of supermarket foods contain at least one genetically engineered ingredient [1].

Genetically modified organism: an organism whose genome has been altered using recombinant genetic technologies to favor the expression of desired physiological traits or the production of desired biological products. Typically, all commercial GMOs are engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide.

The Vermont law will take effect in July 2016. However, both supporters and opponents of the measure expect the state to face legal challenges from food and farming interests, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, BASF, Dow Chemical Company, DuPont and Syngenta, all of which have challenged previous attempts at GMO disclosure laws.

Indeed, the national Grocery Manufacturers Association has already stated that since consumers who prefer to avoid GMO foods have the option to choose from a variety of products labeled ‘certified organic,’ the law is legally suspect. In a statement released last week, the trade group said that it will file suit in federal court to overturn the law [2].

Certified Organic: a certification process for producers of organic food and other organic agricultural products that integrates cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Although requirements vary from country to country, certification generally involves a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering may not be used.

The ‘right to know’

Vermont state representative Paul Ralston (D), who voted in favor of the bill, said that his vote wasn’t based on personal opinion:

I just don’t have the scientific background to understand the complexity of the issue and don’t really need to. I represent the people, and their will was made overwhelmingly clear. It’s a basic principle of the right to know. That’s the primary reason.

The new law will require food makers to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients with phrases such as “partially produced with genetic engineering”, “may be produced with genetic engineering” or “produced with genetic engineering”.

Meat, alcohol and meals prepared in restaurants will be exempt. Dairy will be temporarily exempt pending further study but the state’s attorney general. Moreover, food that contains genetically modified ingredients cannot be marketed as “all natural.”

Natural and All Natural: terms used in food labeling with a variety of vague definitions. Although the terms are assumed to imply that foods are minimally processed and do not contain manufactured ingredients, the lack of standards means that the terms assure nothing.

Other states are lining up to require GMO labeling

Many other states have introduced legislation that would require food producers to label foods that contain GMOs.

In 2012 and 2013, high-profile ballot measures to require GMO labeling failed in California and Washington state.

Connecticut became the first state to pass a GMO labeling bill in June 2013. However, it doesn’t take effect until four other states with a total of at least 20 million residents, enact similar laws. Maine also passed a law with a similar condition (five nearby states).

In April, the Center for Food Safety released a fact sheet indicating that there are 65 active bills and ballot initiatives across 26 states; 33 new GMO labeling bills were introduced since the beginning of this year [3].

References

  1. Cowan T. Agricultural Biotechnology: Background and Recent Issues. Washington, DC:Congressional Research Service. 2011.
  2. Vermont GMO Labeling Law Critically Flawed and Costly for Consumers. Grocery Manufacturers Association. 2014 May 8.
  3. GE Food Labeling: States Take Action. Center for Food Safety. 2014 Apr.
About the Author

Jenny Jessen is Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH. She is also a senior writer at Highlight HEALTH.