Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders vowed that he would do everything in his power to defeat a federal plan from the Senate to set labeling standards for products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO). The GMO labeling plan, which was unveiled in the Senate and the result of bipartisan negotiations, would pre-empt Vermont’s current GMO labeling law, which goes into effect on July 1. It was the Vermont law in question which actually helped kick off the design of the currently proposed federal system and is just another part of the ongoing struggle between consumer choice, science, and marketplace confusion.
A Brief History of GMO Labeling
GMO ingredients are currently used in about 75% of all processed foods within the United States. Advocates for mandatory labeling wish to improve the amount of information available to consumers and to let them make informed choices about what to buy and eat. Opponents point out that GMO ingredients are safe and equivalent to unmodified ingredients, so that there is no benefit to be obtained from such labeling. Furthermore, there is very real concern that GMO labeling would unjustly stigmatize the labeled foods due to the prevalent suspicion and misconception that surrounds the products. In other words, one side is saying it’s about consumer choice, and the other is saying it would unfairly harm business without benefit to consumers.
Against this backdrop, Vermont passed a law in 2014 that mandated labels on products containing GMO ingredients. Since it’s financially onerous for companies (which would be passed on to consumers) to create Vermont-specific packaging, this law would effectively result in nationwide labeling on any products also sold within the state. Food producers and retailers have challenged the law but failed.
The Senate plan, if passed in its current form, would require food companies to disclose the products which contain GMO ingredients but is much more lenient in how this is actually done. Among the current possibilities include text on packaging, QR codes, and directing consumers to phone numbers or web sites. Since this is a federal law, it would pre-empt and effectively nullify the Vermont labeling law should it go into effect.
Opinions on the Senate plan have been mixed. Some, like Bernie Sanders, oppose the measure and support Vermont’s law as a national standard. Others, like Senator Chuck Grassley, disapprove of the lack of scientific basis behind the agenda for labeling. The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association has released a statement supporting the bill since it avoids the messy problem of a patchwork of rules from different states.
Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau Federation is still reviewing the plan but has stated that it opposes mandatory labels since there has never been any documented health risks from GMO ingredients or foods. It’s unlikely that the Senate bill, even if fast-tracked, would see passage before July 1 when Vermont’s law comes into effect. This means that, at least for a little while, consumers are going to start seeing more GMO labels at the grocery store, whether they live in Vermont or not.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Love, P., “Senators Reach Deal on National GMO Labeling Bill,” NPR web site, June 23, 2016; http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/06/23/483290269/senate-unveils-a-national-gmo-labeling-bill, last accessed June 24, 2016.
“GMA Praises Bipartisan Agreement on National Food Labeling Legislation,” GMA web site, June 23, 2016; http://www.gmaonline.org/news-events/newsroom/gma-praises-bipartisan-agreement-on-national-food-labeling-legislation/, last accessed June 24, 2016.
Beeler, C., “Why Vermont’s GMO Labels Will Be Showing Up in Your Grocery Stores,” PRI web site, April 7, 2016; http://www.pri.org/stories/2016-04-07/why-vermont-s-gmo-labels-will-be-showing-your-grocery-stores, last accessed June 24, 2016.