The Little State with the Big Labeling Law

Thanks to Vermont, GMO labeling is expected to spread nationwide.

While monolithic food corporations pledge to keep fighting Vermont’s historic GMO labeling law, many are also starting to comply, a sign that the second-smallest state in the nation is forcing a food-industry shift that will have repercussions across the country. 

“Vermont state law requires us to start labeling certain grocery store food packages that contain GMO ingredients or face significant fines,” Jeff Harmening, an executive vice president for General Mills, wrote on the General Mills blog this spring. “We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that. The result: consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products.”

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are endemic to food and medicine and prevelanent in many common products consumers purchase every day. When we alter the genetic material of a living thing so it can do something new or different, we create a GMO. A GMO may be a bacterium that puts out human insulin or an insect-resistant corn plant. 

Critics believe genetic tinkering with food has unforseen consequences, and some may be grave. Proponents of mandatory labeling say consumers should know about GMOs in their food so they can make informed choices.

GMO labeling: coming to Vermont July 1.

In 2014, Vermont passed a law requiring all genetically modified foods sold in the state to be labeled by July 1, 2016. Then the fight was on.

According to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit environmental think tank based in Washington, D.C., food and agricultural corporations spent more than $100 million in 2015 to fight the law. The law sets fines of $1,000 per day for every product not in compliance.

The turning point in the fight against GMO labeling came this spring. In March 2016, the U.S. Senate voted to block a contentious industry-backed bill, the so-called DARK Act, that would have prevented Vermont and other states from requiring labels on genetically modified foods. 

The bill was championed by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. Defeating the bill paved the way for Vermont’s GMO labeling law and led to the subsequent ripple effect of GMO labeling nationwide.

“Sen. Roberts’ legislation violates the will of the people of Vermont and the United States who overwhelmingly believe that genetically modified food should be labeled,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote in a statement after the bill was blocked. 

With the July 1 deadline looming, several major food producers are now voluntarily labeleling their products containing GMOs, not only in Vermont, but nationwide. General Mills, Mars, Kellogg and ConAgra Foods are among the companies that will comply with the Vermont law on a national scale, pledging to add GMO labels to all their packaging.

At the Co-op, we are pro-labeling. We are not anti-GMO. 

What do we think about all this at the Co-op?

Decades before genetic engineering in food was a heated national conversation, food co-ops were raising red flags about GMOs and lobbying for a national mandatory labeling solution. Our co-op was no exception.

We are pro-labeling. We are not anti-GMO. Despite hyperbolic claims about the dangers of GMOs, the jury is still out on how harmful GMOs are. It’s a complex, murky subject, and the conversation is often driven by more opinion than fact.

That said, we believe what most Americans do: consumers have the right to know where their food comes from and what’s in it. 

It’s an idea that has overwhelming, widespread support. In 2013, a New York Times poll indicated that more than 93 percent of respondents favored GMO labeling, and by 2014, 24 states were considering broad, sweeping legislation to label GMO foods. With Vermont leading the way and effecting change in the industry, other states may find their GMO foods labeled, too, whether those states have passed labeling legislation or not. 

“GMO labeling exists in 64 other countries,” Sanders wrote. “There is no reason it can’t exist here.”

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis

Ken is a writer in the Co-op Outreach Department. Email him at kdavis@coopfoodstore.com.