In Statehouse, GE labeling bill is praised and panned

Ben & Jerry's ice cream co-founder Jerry Greenfield, addresses the House Agriculture Committee Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, in support of a bill requiring the labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients. At right is Rob Michalak, Ben & Jerry's social mission director, who also spoke. Photo by Andrew Stein

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream co-founder Jerry Greenfield, addresses the House Agriculture Committee Thursday  in support of a bill requiring the labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients. At right is Rob Michalak, Ben & Jerry’s social mission director, who also spoke. Photo by Andrew Stein

 

A move to require labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods in Vermont is facing fierce opposition from members of the dairy industry, while receiving a big thumb’s up from one of the world’s preeminent ice cream producers.

On Thursday, Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, gave the House Agriculture Committee his full support for a labeling bill in the Vermont House, which already has 50 sponsors. A bill with similar intentions was introduced last biennial session in the House and failed to move forward.

“This is fundamentally about a consumer’s right to know,” Greenfield told the committee. “It’s not about a producer’s. It’s about people being able to make informed choices about something that is very basic — what they put into their bodies.”

Not everyone agrees with this perception. Margaret Laggis is a lobbyist for the biotech industry, but on Thursday she was representing the groups Dairy Farmers Working Together and United Dairy Farmers. She raised a warning flag about the messages GE labeling might send to consumers.

“I feel that putting a caution or a warning under food is certainly trying to confuse or scare consumers about food,” she said. “We typically think of pesticides or explosives having warning labels, not our food products.”

Greenfield took a very different stance. He said GE labeling is anything but confusing, and companies should be completely transparent about the ingredients going into people’s bodies.

He and Rob Michalak, social mission director at Ben & Jerry’s, said that 20 percent of most Ben & Jerry’s ice cream contains GE ingredients — mostly corn syrup in “the swirls,” added Michalak. Greenfield told the committee that Ben & Jerry’s is committed to weaning itself off GE ingredients, and the company has identified a source of non-GE corn for its syrup.

“I think food producers and companies ought to be proud to say what’s in, or not in, their products,” Greenfield said. “They should be screaming it from the rooftops. If you don’t feel great about what’s in your product, get out of the business. We should feel great about what we’re making and what’s in it, and consumers have a right to know.”

The committee raised concerns that labeling requirements might hinder small producers who can’t adjust their ingredient streams quickly. Michalak told the committee that Ben & Jerry’s supports a one- to two-year transition period that would allow food manufacturers to adjust to new regulations.

Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR), which strongly supports the legislation, is also in favor of a transition period. The organization is also advocating for the committee to create a low-interest loan program to help small producers shift away from GE ingredients, which are also referred to as GM (genetically modified) and GMO ingredients.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, who chairs the committee, told Michalak that while she supports the bill, she’s concerned it might place Vermont producers at a disadvantage nationally.

Michalak countered that the bill could give Vermont producers an advantage, and Daniel Barlow, lobbyist for VBSR, said that many food-based businesses across the country have had great success marketing non-GE foods.

“This could actually put the Vermont specialty food industry into a leadership role,” Michalak agreed. “With this legislation we put the power in the hands of the consumers, they are going to be selecting products they want to select and that could (create) a great advantage for those food producers that choose to not use GM ingredients.”

He also said that the bill could help drive the farming industry away from GE foods.

“The more demand there is, the more farmers will be getting non-GM seed, and there will be more supply at a more cost-effective level,” he said.

That is a concern of the groups Laggis represents.

Laggis touted the many benefits of GE crops for farmers, citing their ability to resist herbicides, grow in harsher climates and sequester high levels of nutrients from the soil. She said that the farmers she represents are concerned that the labeling effort is a disguise to drown out a facet of the biotech industry that has helped them succeed in a tough economic climate.

“I know this committee feels as though it’s a labeling issue and a right-to-know issue, but our farmers have been dealing with several of the groups that back this effort, and their real agenda is that … they really want to ban the use of this technology,” Laggis said.

Rep. John Bartholomew, D-Hartland, listened intently before raising a pair of loaded questions about the lack of human health studies that have been conducted in association with these crops.

“Why would you possibly come to the conclusion that these products should be on the market and out there and consumers not told that they’re being used when there could be health effects?” he asked. “Is what you’re saying that a farmer’s economics trumping public safety?”

Laggis defended the safety of the products, conceding that no long-term human studies have been conducted on GE food products.

“These products did have to prove that they are nutritionally similar to their counterparts,” she said. “What they tested for and what is required to be tested for is known common allergies … and the nutritional content.

“Have there been feeding studies? No. Those are very long and very expensive, and there was nothing that would lead us to believe there’s a problem,” she said.

Andrew Stein

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