For multiple health, personal, religious, and environmental reasons, the State of Vermont finds that food produced from genetic engineering should be labeled as such.
– An Act Relating to the Labeling of Food Produced With Genetic Engineering, signed into law on May 8, 2014
Just underneath Vermont’s laid-back vibe lurks a highly competitive streak. First state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage. First state in the union to call for a constitutional convention to undo Citizens United v. FEC. First state in the union to elect a female lieutenant governor. Vermont was even the first state admitted to the union–if you don’t count the 13 colonies, who obviously had connections.
Now we’ve done it again. In May, Vermont became the first state in the union to require food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The law, which will go into effect in July 2016, will also bar the words “natural,” “naturally made,” and similar terms from labels containing GMO ingredients. (Meat and dairy products are exempt.)
“Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: They want to know what’s in their food,” Governor Peter Shumlin said. “We are pro-choice. We are pro-information. Vermont gets it right with this bill.”
The Grocery Manufacturers Association immediately announced its intention to sue the state on constitutional grounds. In preparation for that contingency, the bill establishes a $1.5 million defense fund that can accept contributions from state appropriations, private donations and surplus settlement proceeds. Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell estimated that defending the bill could cost up to $5 million. (Private donations can be made at Foodfightfundvt.org.)
GMO food producers argue that their foods are safe and lower herbicide use. Their clout in Washington has stalled regulation long enough to allow genetic modification of the vast majority of commodity crops grown in the U.S. They have claimed that Vermont’s labeling law could raise the average household’s food bill by $400 a year, and have raised the prospect that food producers may simply find it cheaper not to sell in Vermont–-which Sorrell dismissed as a “scare tactic.”
And one which residents don’t seem to be predisposed to fall for. A survey conducted by the Vermont Digger and the Castleton Polling Institute showed support of the law running at 79% in April. The support was even higher among those under age 65.
The law is restrained in parts, emphasizing the lack of evidence and scientific consensus around the long-term safety consequences of eating GMO foods and other matters, such as the prospects for cross-contamination. It is more forceful regarding ecosystem impacts, linking GMO crops to an increase “in commodity agricultural production practices, which contribute to genetic homogeneity, loss of biodiversity, and increased vulnerability of crops to pesticides, diseases, and variable climate conditions.”
Unlike Connecticut’s and Maine’s labeling laws, Vermont’s does not include a “trigger,” or a requirement that other states pass similar laws before it goes into effect. More than 24 states are considering labeling laws. GMO labeling ballot measures were defeated in California and Washington when industry opponents heavily outspent labeling supporters. (The spice maker McCormick Company’s opposition to the bill–-which it had not disclosed to shareholders–prompted us into dialogue with the corporation last year to insist on greater transparency around its political expenditures. We didn’t change the company’s mind about GMOs, but it adopted an improved disclosure policy.
What’s In That Teddy, Anyway?
Vermont will also sign into law a bill regulating toxic chemicals in children’s products. Every two years beginning in 2016, it requires manufacturers to report toxic chemicals that have been intentionally added to their products. Clean Yield lobbied legislators in support of the bill.
Lauren Hierl, the political director of Vermont Conservation Voters, called the bill’s regulation of 66 chemicals a “great step” and a baseline for the future expansion of the law’s coverage to other product categories beyond children’s toys. She praised the bill’s assignation of full authority to the Department of Health ro restrict usage as a victory that will preempt future chemical-by-chemical showdowns in the legislature.
As with the GMO legislation, industry groups protested that the measure was unnecessary, expensive, and would backfire on Vermont consumers by causing manufacturers to quit selling their toys in the state. Opponents included the Toy Industry Association, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and companies including IBM, Keurig Green Mountain, and Walmart. In an email exchange with Clean Yield, Keurig Green Mountain confirmed it had submitted comments against an earlier version of the bill that sought to regulate a wider range of products that would include food packaging, and was “ultimately more comfortable with later versions of the legislation that limited its scope to children’s products.” We plan to follow up with Keurig to better understand which of its packaging ingredients might have been affected by a broader bill.
Tags: genetically modified organisms, gmo, Grocery Manufacturers Association, IBM, Keurig Green Mountain, S. 239, toxic chemicals, Vermont Conservation Voters, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Walmart