Lawmakers seek best approach to GMO labeling laws
Retail and consumer groups are going head to head as states across the country craft mandatory labeling laws for foods produced with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While some states legislatures, such as Washington and California’s, have failed to pass mandatory labeling laws, states in the New England region have had more success.
Connecticut was the first state to pass a measure mandating labeling of GMO foods. The law, however, passed with a few requirements before it can go into effect. Four other states in the region must also pass similar laws, provided one of these states borders Connecticut. The second provision for the law to take effect is that the aggregate population of these states must be more than 20 million.
In 2014, the Main legislature passed the “Act to Protect Maine Food Consumers’ Right to Know about Genetically Engineered Food,” requiring the labeling of GMOs. However, a provision in the law prevents implementation until five contiguous states, including Maine, approve similar laws. Another provision of the law includes an automatic repeal if mandatory labeling laws are not approved by at least five contiguous states, including Maine, by January 1, 2018. The Maine Farm Bureau and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association both supported the bill.
Since then efforts have been made to change the law. Representative Michelle Dunphy introduced a bill, LD 991, last year that would amend the state’s labeling law. The proposal would repeal the provisions on the law’s effective date. A second proposal, LD1326, introduced by Senator David Burns defined genetically modified products and would require the “disclosure of genetic engineering of food, seed stock, products from animals fed genetically engineered food or medicines that were manufactured with genetically engineered plants or animals beginning January 1, 2017.” The bill also states that products “for which the disclosure is not made are considered to be misbranded and subject to the sanctions for misbranding.” Although the Maine Farm Bureau supports GMO labeling, it opposed both of these proposals.
“By delaying implementation of the bill until five contiguous states pass similar regulations, the bill provides a level playing field and other economic protections for Maine farmers who buy, sell or otherwise market in adjacent or nearby states,” Alicyn Smart, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau, told the Associated Press in January.
The rush to pass legislation at the federal level is based on Vermont’s Act 120 and Consumer Protection Rule 121, which go into effect July 1. The law will make GMO labeling mandatory. Labeling will apply “to raw agricultural products like corn and squash as well as processed foods such as crackers, soda, and cereals” sold at physical stores in Vermont.
Under Vermont’s law, the responsibility of placing the GMO label could fall on the manufacturer or retailer, depending on the product. For example, manufacturers that package and label are responsible for GMO labeling on packaged raw agricultural commodities and packaged processed food. Retailers are responsible for labeling non-packaged raw agricultural commodities, such as corn sold by the ear. Retailers would also be responsible for the labeling of unpackaged processed foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.
The Consumer Protection Rule provides a safe harbor for foods distributed prior to July 1, and offered for retail sale until January 1, 2017. After that time, “the manufacturer of any packaged, processed food that does not comply with the GE labeling law and is being offered for retail sale in Vermont could be liable for penalties, regardless of the date the product was produced or distributed.”
The Vermont Attorney General’s Office, responsible for the enforcement of the GMO labeling law, has released a guide online that explains the law as it applies to manufacturers, retailers and consumers. View the guide at ago.vermont.gov/hot-topics/ge-food-labeling-rule.php.
While the GMO labeling debate seems concentrated in the New England area, other states have tried to pass their own labeling legislation for genetically engineered foods but with no success.
As more states continue attempts to pass mandatory labeling laws, manufacturing and retail groups are urging legislators to take action at the national level. Most recently, U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee approved the Biotechnology Labeling Solutions mark introduced by Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the committee. The bill moved on to the full Senate for consideration, but failed to proceed further after a vote of 48-49 on March 16. The bill would have required the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national voluntary labeling standard for bioengineered foods. Roberts’ bill would have preempted current laws, such as those in Maine and Vermont, and blocked other states from drafting similar legislation.
Sen. Roberts said he will continue to work on a labeling solution, but also challenged opponents to propose their own.
“I have been flexible and have compromised in order to address concerns about making information available to consumers,” Sen. Roberts said. “Simply put, if we are to have a solution, opponents of our bill must be willing to do the same. And yet opponents of this approach would not put forward a proposal for a vote. Why is that?”
The Biotechnology Labeling Solutions bill was similar to a bill approved in the U.S. House of Representatives last year. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act passed with a 275-150 vote. Opponents of the bill have called it the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act. Most members of the retail industry and growers associations are in favor of a national labeling standard.
With July 1 quickly approaching and no overwhelming support for federal proposals, processors are weighing the options on how to deal with Vermont’s labeling law. Manufacturers could update the labels of all GMO foods, regardless of destination, or create new labels specifically for states (as more will surely follow if action isn’t taken at the federal level) requiring labeling of genetically modified foods. Two more drastic, and possibly costly, options some manufacturers may consider are removing GMOs from foods or not selling GMO products in Vermont at all.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has suggested digital labeling as a way to meet in the middle. Opponents of voluntary labeling, however, argue that digital labeling would leave consumers without a smartphone in the dark.
In January, Campbell announced its decision to support mandatory national labeling of genetically engineered foods and introduced a GMO label that complies with Vermont’s labeling law.
In a memo to employees regarding the decision to support mandatory labeling, Campbell CEO Denise Morrison said: “Although we believe that consumers have the right to know what’s in their food, we also believe that a state-by-state piecemeal approach is incomplete, impractical and costly to implement for food makers.” Morrison added that the laws would create confusion for consumers.
“Under Vermont law, SpaghettiO’s original variety, guided by the FDA, will be labeled for the presence of GMOs, but SpaghettiO’s meatballs, guided by the USDA, will not,” Morrison said in the memo. “Yet these two varieties sit next to each other on a store shelf, which is bound to create consumer confusion.”
Del Monte Foods recently announced all added ingredients in all Del Monte vegetables and fruit cups and most tomato products will be non-GMO. The company said all non-GMO Del Monte products will be clearly labeled.
Educating consumers on genetically engineered foods will be key in preventing major losses for manufacturers and retailers. A study conducted by Pew Research Center last year compared the views of the public and scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAA) on various topics. The study found 57 percent of the general public believes genetically modified foods are generally unsafe to eat, while 37 percent believed they are safe. By comparison, 88 percent of AAAS scientists said GM foods are generally safe.
— Ana Olvera, digital content editor