By Anne Galloway, VTDigger.org
Members of the U.S. Senate brokered a compromise Thursday that would make labeling of genetically engineered food mandatory nationwide.
But state officials say the legislation is a last-ditch effort to scuttle a Vermont law that will require information about such ingredients on food labels as of July 1.
The Senate bill would not require manufacturers to provide consumers with information about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, on food labels. Instead, companies could use a text, barcode or QR code. Consumers would then have to use a smartphone with a bar code reader to get information about whether the food product has GMO ingredients.
The legislation says companies may also list a phone number with the phrase “call for more food information” without any indication that the food could contain GMOs.
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell says the bill is “not consumer-friendly, it’s industry-friendly.”
“You mean I would need a smartphone and a barcode to figure out if my breakfast cereal has GMOs in it? Give me a break,” Sorrell said. “I don’t know who is supposed to enforce this. Monsanto?”
Gov. Peter Shumlin, a champion of Vermont’s GMO labeling law, said the federal legislation would pre-empt the state statute and would present barriers for people who can’t afford to own a smart phone. “This solution falls short for consumers who lack access to technology or the internet to find out what’s in their food,” Shumlin said in a statement.
Not long after Vermont’s Act 120 was enacted in 2014, the state became embroiled in a lawsuit by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association and the International Dairy Foods Association. The food industry groups are arguing the law violates First Amendment rights. A lower court upheld the Vermont law, and the case is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
In the meantime, food manufacturers have tried to pass federal legislation that would block the Vermont law. In March, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., led the effort to defeat a bill that would have effectively scuttled Vermont’s law. The legislation, proposed by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., also had a complicated scanning scheme instead of labeling on the product and would have supplanted Vermont’s mandatory labeling law with a national, voluntary labeling standard for foods with genetically engineered ingredients.
The Senate compromise Thursday, June 23, was struck by Roberts and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. Stabenow said the bill eliminates a “patchwork of 50 different rules” in 50 states and closes “glaring” loopholes in the state law. Under Vermont statute, any product with meat in it that also has GMO ingredients cannot be labeled.
“Under the law in Vermont, for example, a cheese pizza could be labeled but a pepperoni pizza could not, even if it contained a GMO ingredient,” Stabenow said in a statement.
The Senate bill would also allow food manufacturers to use a non-GMO label, according members of Leahy’s staff.
The Senate could take up the bill as early as next week, but because the House is now on recess — Speaker Paul Ryan sent lawmakers home early after a sit-in over gun control — it’s not possible for federal legislation to pass before the state statute goes into effect.
But the threat of federal pre-emption “is still out there,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group. The Senate and House could agree on a compromise after the state law goes into effect that would render the Vermont law moot, she said. The House passed legislation last year that would prevent states from establishing mandatory labeling laws.
Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., both say they are dubious about the efficacy of the bill and believe it is designed to pre-empt Vermont’s Act 120. Sanders said he will “do everything (he) can” to defeat the legislation, while Leahy said he will carefully review the proposal.
“Without Vermont’s leadership, we would not even be having this debate in Congress,” Leahy said. “Nonetheless, I am concerned that this agreement is poised to preempt Vermont’s Act 120 and could leave many consumers with complicated scanning codes rather than simple on-package labels or symbols.”
Lovera of Food and Water said even if consumers have smart phones and are willing to take the time to look up the QR codes, wireless access is often spotty in grocery stores.
The proposal also narrowly defines genetic engineering and does not allow for the inclusion of new technologies such as gene editing, Lovera said.
If the legislation is enacted, it could take two years for the USDA to establish labeling standards, and it would be another year before small food manufacturers, which are not defined in the legislation, would be required to implement the rules, according to the draft bill.
“Two years is too much time when we have a law in Vermont that requires labeling next month,” Lovera said.
The rulemaking process would allow consumers to weigh in on the details of the legislation. Officials from Leahy’s office say it’s possible that rules could require in-aisle scanners at grocery stories or a texting option that would be easier for people to use.
Vermont is the first state to require food manufacturers to label products with genetically engineered ingredients. Two other states, Maine and Connecticut, have passed similar laws, and 30 states have introduced labeling legislation.
Like the Vermont law, the federal legislation does not require labeling of animal products from animals that have been fed GMO corn.
Several large food manufacturers, including Campbell Soup, General Mills, Kellogg and ConAgra, have already agreed to comply with Vermont’s law.