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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Pam Ladds
3 years 11 months ago
How unsurprising that big biz thinks we purchasers of their products are too dumb to understand labels. A word for Ms Laggis, labels don’t scare us, but patronizing greedy manufacturers and lobbyists do. Whether or not I get “confused” by ingredients is irrelevant. I have a fundamental right to know what is in my food. Warning labels more associated with pesticides or explosives? Well maybe, but the ingredients in both of those are probably in our food and I would like to know. And while some of our elected officials may be worrying about the impact on Vermonters they can… Read more »
James Maroney
3 years 11 months ago
Ben & Jerry’s is a Vermont icon and a big customer for Vermont milk; it has done a masterful job of portraying itself as a friend of the dairy farmer and in the public’s eyes it has succeeded. But the company’s policies are in large part responsible for the sad condition in which the dairy industry finds itself today. The company’s stated interest in the “triple bottom line” which includes its social mission is profoundly unattainable by paying dairy farmers, their biggest and most important supplier of natural resources, below the cost of production. B&J cannot become Fair Trade™ by… Read more »
Bruce Lierman
3 years 11 months ago
It’s very unfortunate that our dairy industry has allowed itself to be used by those who promote and lobby for genetically modified materials. Does the farmer benefit by hiding the content of his product? It’s difficult to see how. But then again, the “Dairy Industry” isn’t the “small farmers”, is it? Does the biotech industry benefit by hiding the pervasive spread of its products? Of course it does. This labeling might in some small way aid those who provide non-GMO (or GE, if you like) products, thus limiting demand for the GMOs and creating more competition in the marketplace. That,… Read more »
3 years 10 months ago
“…there was nothing that would lead us to believe there’s a problem…” So, the feeding study that was published last September that said (in part): “The health effects of a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize (from 11% in the diet), cultivated with or without Roundup, and Roundup alone (from 0.1 ppb in water), were studied 2 years in rats. In females, all treated groups died 2–3 times more than controls, and more rapidly.” doesn’t provide a *hint* that there is a problem? What other sort of evidence should we expect to have before the long-term studies are done? “Long term toxicity… Read more »
David Zuckerman
3 years 10 months ago
First, I will admit I am not a scientific expert on this topic. But, what we (the Senate Agriculture Committee) learned this past week was that the study mentioned above, was blasted by scientists for it methodology. And, by many standards that methodology had its flaws, but it used the same methodology (number of rats, type of rats etc.) that Monsanto had used to prove the safety of its products. They wanted to mirror the Monsanto study, but do it over a longer period of time to see if there were effects if one went longer. But they wanted to… Read more »
Ted Lemon
3 years 10 months ago
Is the proposal to just have a label that says “this contains genetically engineered crops?” If so, that’s not enough information. Some genetically-engineered crop features are perfectly fine. The problem is with crops that, for example, have engineered-in herbicides the effects of which have not been studied. And I have a deep philosophical opposition to crops with built-in suicide genes to prevent farmers from saving seeds from this year’s crop to plant next year’s, whether the produce is healthy to eat or not. Consumers have a right to this information. If GE crop producers are afraid that consumers will get… Read more »
Page Guertin
3 years 10 months ago

I’ve been told that a phone call from Monsanto to the Gov. caused similar legislation to be pulled off the table in the last session. Let’s hope that this time around we show a little backbone and pass this bill, even with all its caveats and exemptions.

Tiki Archambeau
3 years 10 months ago

Lack of research on GMO health effects isn’t enough of a reason?

This isn’t just cross-breeding two different apple varieties. This is about inserting food genes with bits of E coli DNA. Turning this around, how on earth could these products become so prominent in our food system without looking at a possible health impact? The Industry is lucky the legislature is not looking at an outright ban as would happen with any similarly untested food.

FYI: Monsanto supported GMO labeling in England.

David Carter
3 years 10 months ago
There is significant evidence that GMO food is not only harmful to human (as well as other animal) health, but GMO crops threaten to destroy eons of natural plants by contaminating them via genetic drift-the cross pollination of organic and non-GMO crops with GMO seeds that occurs as a result of pollen carried by the wind. Once the horse is out of the barn, you can’t let it back in. For anyone who needs clarification about this issue, I suggest reading “The World According to Monsanto” or watching film documentaries such as “Life Running Out of Control” or “The Future… Read more »
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