Hundreds of people, many of whom traveled in buses from the far corners of the state, jammed the Statehouse Thursday night to tell the House Agriculture Committee to pass the bill mandating labeling of genetically engineered (GE) food sold in Vermont.
“It reminded me of Barack Obama saying, ‘Pass this bill,’” said Rural Vermont executive director Andrea Stander about the litany of testimony. She said 112 people testified by the end of the evening.
Committee member Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, echoed her. “One hundred percent wanted us to pass the bill. Some said tonight, some said tomorrow.”
Committee Chair Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, said after Thursday’s hearing that the committee will be discussing the bill Friday morning, and she expects it to pass in some form. She thinks it will need examination by the Judiciary committee.
“We have two weeks left in the session,” she said. “I think it’s important, if nothing else, to set up a model bill and do our best to create a defensible bill.”
The hearing was scheduled for the House chamber to accommodate the large crowd expected. The House was still on the floor, however, at the beginning of the hearing, so the hearing opened in Room 11, the next largest meeting room in the building. “Welcome to the people’s house,” began Partridge. “I’m sorry we’re not meeting in the living room, but at least we’re in the den.”
While the crowd waited for committee members to arrive from a roll-call vote on the House floor, they spoke to each other of why they were there, with committee staffer Linda Leehman taking a microphone around the room.
Rachel Nevitt, a farmer at Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg, cautioned, “This is an incomplete bill. … It would tell you what processed foods have GMOs in it. It wouldn’t tell you which animal products are derived from animals that are fed genetically modified feed. We still have to keep fighting for more. Ask your farmers what they feed their animals.”
The bill, H. 722, applies to all food sold in Vermont and amends the definition of “misbranded” food to include food that is produced with genetic engineering but not labeled as such. The bill defines genetic engineering to include a number of breeding techniques that breach normal barriers between species, and it applies to both raw agricultural commodities, like vegetables, and processed foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients. It would also prohibit any labeling of genetically engineered food as “natural.” Not included in the law would be meat, milk, and eggs from animals fed genetically engineered feed or treated with genetically engineered drugs such as bovine growth hormone.
When formal testimony began, one of the first to testify was VPIRG consumer protection advocate Falko Schilling, who presented the committee with a petition to pass the bill that he said was signed by 4,001 Vermonters in two months of collecting signatures.
Committee members did not need the hearing to learn that Vermonters want to know whether their food contains genetically engineered ingredients. Survey results were presented by Jane Kolodinsky, director of community development and applied economics at the University of Vermont. In four surveys taken since 2001, a minimum of 94 percent of Vermonters have said that they want labeling for GE food. The most recent survey was taken last month, she reported.
Will Allen, an East Thetford farmer on the policy board of the Organic Consumers Association, has charged that Thursday’s hearing was a way for the Legislature to “run out the clock” before the end of the session. According to Allen, the extended testimony schedule is the committee’s way of “dragging its feet” and avoiding passing a bill that would bring legal costs to the state.
Rachel Lattimore, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who has represented the Biotechnology Industry Association, Monsanto, and other biotechnology companies, told the committee and one of its attorneys that Vermont would face a lawsuit from the industry if it passed this bill.
Stevens indicated over the weekend that he is impatient, as well. He said he was ready to discuss the bill with his committee and make a decision on it, without any of the testimony scheduled for the public hearing or other testimony scheduled for this week.
“We are not afraid of the threat of a suit,” Stevens said. “We knew from the get-go that any meaningful bill would be subject to a lawsuit.”
Vermont could still lead the nation with the bill, if it goes through the rest of the legislative process — passage out of committee, on the House floor and in the Senate — presumably after review by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Stevens was uncertain whether the bill would need much review by the House Judiciary Committee, which is what committee members expected two weeks ago. The penalty associated with breaking the labeling law is something that triggers automatic review by Judiciary, they said.
Connecticut appears to be the only state where a GE food labeling bill has passed out of committee, but the bill there is still in limbo.
In other recent testimony, Dr. Robert Merker of the Center for Food Additive Safety at the Food and Drug Administration, told the committee about the FDA review process. Though a number of earlier witnesses had talked about studies on GE food safety done by the FDA, Merker said, “On submissions to the FDA on safety, FDA has never done its own testing. We don’t have the budget.”
Merker mentioned only one exception to the FDA’s no-testing policy: StarLink corn. The GE corn, produced by Aventis, was intended only for animal feed, but some of it was used in food for direct consumption by humans, including at Taco Bell.
Merker said that the FDA reviewed the scientific literature and the data on genetically modified crops that seed companies had provided. In-house scientists at the FDA review experiment design, and most tests are carried out by independent labs certified for Good Laboratory Practices, and the tests are paid for by the seed company. In almost every case, the FDA has determined that there is no material difference between GE food and conventional food. Where there is a material difference — Merker mentioned soybeans modified to produce an oil more like canola oil or olive oil — then the FDA does require labeling. Congress has given the FDA no statutory authority to require labeling based on the process of breeding the food, Merker said.
The Center for Food Safety has submitted a petition to the FDA asking it to require labels for GE food and laying out the legal case for the FDA’s authority and, it says, statutory duty to require the labels. The committee did not ask about the legal arguments in that petition.
Committee members brought up studies they were familiar with, including one showing the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) protein in umbilical blood of fetuses, to ask about health effects on humans from some GE foods. Bt is a bacterium that can kill pestilent butterflies and moths; the Bt protein that kills is incorporated into some GE corn and other crops. Whenever Bt was mentioned, Merker deferred to the Environmental Protection Agency, as Bt is a pesticide and the EPA regulates pesticides.
Jerry Greenfield, making clear he spoke for himself and not for the ice cream company he co-founded, Ben & Jerry’s, told the committee that he supports the bill strictly as a consumer right-to-know measure.
“I am in strongly in support of consumers having a right to know what is in their products. Whether they have health concerns, safety concerns, environmental concerns, religious concerns … people have a right to know what they’re eating and putting into their body,” he said.
He described the legal battle that Ben & Jerry’s fought and won with four states when they labeled their products as not containing recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). But, he acknowledged, “Ben & Jerry’s is not GMO free. Maybe it would be detrimental to companies like Ben & Jerry’s to have to label their product as having GMOs. That’s OK. I say let the chips fall where they may; just tell people the truth and let people make their own choices.”