What’s in a label? Possibly the source of your food

What’s in a label? Possibly the source of your food

In May, the Vermont House passed a controversial bill that would mandate labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms. The easy passage of House Bill 112 — the vote was 99-42 — shows that, as in 27 other states, there is broad interest in Vermont in labeling GMOs.

But when the legislation is taken up by the Senate in January, passage out of committee, let alone the full body, could be an issue. Three of five senators on the Senate Agriculture committee either oppose labeling or question its usefulness.

Meanwhile, experts say, labeling key ingredients in processed foods — such as vegetable oils, corn, soy and sugar — could have unintended implications that have not been adequately considered.

The idea, as pitched by advocates, is simple: Consumers ought to have the right to know what they are eating, and to that end, any food that contains genetically modified organisms from another plant or animal should be identified. The House bill addresses the Vermont Right to Know GMOs Coalition’s concerns about genetic changes to foodstuffs and cites “multiple health, personal, cultural, religious, environmental and economic” reasons for the label. And many of those who question the law agree on the right-to-know aspect.

Advocates say scientists don’t understand the long-term impact of genetically engineered foods on the human body and the environment and therefore consumers should have a warning when food contains GMOs.

A straightforward right-to-know issue, however, quickly grows complicated. The trouble is that genetically modified foods are ubiquitous, experts say, which could make labeling a challenge.

And even if the new rule went into effect, a Vermont food shopper looking for GMO-free food would be barraged by potentially confusing labeling. That’s because the bill does not draw a bright line between GMO foods and non-GMO foods. Instead, it broadly requires labeling of any food that “contains GMOs.”

Chris Bray

Chris Bray

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, is on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which heard testimony about S.89, the Senate version of H.112 last session. Bray decided to evaluate the practicality of the labeling bill by doing a little shopping. He says he’s learned that at least 16 of 20 common processed foods contain GMOs, and under H.112 would be so labeled. To add to the confusion, some products are already voluntarily labeled “non-GMO.”

GMO-free items can have a variety of labels, including the plain and simple “Organic.” Or a package could be marked “Non-GMO project verified,” which is the identifier on foods that have been voluntarily labeled by the Non-GMO Project, “an initiative of independent natural foods retailers” that offers a third party verification program, largely for processed foods. Soon, under a recently passed federal law, meat from animals whose feed did not contain GMOs will have an FDA-approved “non-GMO” label. (Since 95 percent of feed corn grown in Vermont is from GE seed, that may become a difficulty for Vermont meat producers.)

Bray says that adding to the confusion is the fact that unless organic food is “100 percent organic,” there is no guarantee it doesn’t contain GMOs. Organic foods without the “100 percent organic” certification are allowed to contain up to 5 percent “non-organic” ingredients.

“The question is how you best inform consumers,” Bray said. “I’m coming to the conclusion that informing consumers is becoming a bit of a mess. However well-intentioned, this labeling law could have the effect of discouraging consumers, not making them happier and more well-informed.” While he says GMOs are “a gamble,” he doesn’t feel the bill addresses the labeling issue adequately.

Advocates see the labeling of food containing GMOs as the “common sense” answer to the consumers’ “right to know what’s in their food.” This is the push by Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), Rural Vermont and NOFA-VT, under the umbrella of the Vermont Right to Know GMOs Coalition. They have gathered 8,000 signatures on a petition in support of labeling all products containing GMOs and the coalition began a statewide campaign this summer to gather more and raise money to support advocacy for the bill.

Dan Barlow, a lobbyist for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility who has advocated for H.112, said GMOs are a threat to the Vermont brand. “I think this move can only strengthen the Vermont brand going forward,” he said.

Even though the legislation does not require that products be labeled non-GMO, as Ben & Jerry’s will be doing by the end of 2013, founder Jerry Greenfield came to testify in support of the bill this year. Bray asked him what the bill would do for Ben & Jerry’s that they couldn’t do on their own. “Greenfield’s reply was ‘nothing,’” Bray reports.

The argument for “non-GMO” or “GMO-free” labels is that certification, with guidelines and standards, by the North American Non-GMO Project is already in place.

But non-GMO certification comes at a cost for producers say supporters of H.112 like Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden. He runs a small organic vegetable operation and wants large food producers to pay those costs because they can more easily absorb them. Supporters of “non-GMO” labeling counter that producers’ costs would be offset by higher sales.

There are adamant opponents of any mandatory labeling who have also had an impact on legislators. Margaret Laggis, a lobbyist for the two largest dairy groups in the state, testified against H.112, saying the bill is “deceptive” since it includes a number of exemptions that would be difficult for the consumer to detect.

The bill exempts restaurant food, GE foods made with “processing aids or enzymes,” such as cheese, and food prepared for immediate consumption. But in a recent interview, Laggis said her clients “would maybe even support Vermont putting out a list of non-GMO products, GMO-free products and ingredients that are likely to contain GMOs.”

The future of the GMO-labeling bill

The House bill is likely to be significantly amended in the Senate, and it could well be completely rewritten. Zuckerman, the lead sponsor of S.89 and a member of the Agriculture committee, said that while the Senate version started out as a mirror of H.112, [but] it is now significantly different. “I have no doubt it will go to both the Judiciary and Agriculture committees,” he says, “and it will have difficulty, I’m sure, on both counts.” Still, he says, “the precedent they (the House) set with their language is a good foundation.”

Some describe the governor’s support as lukewarm. He has cited a bovine growth hormone case the state lost 17 years ago as a reason to go slow on the legislation, though he told VPR on March 28 he wants to “see the bill happen” and that “it just makes sense to let consumers know what they are buying.”

Legislators are also mindful of the 1996 federal court ruling against mandatory labels for milk from cows treated with rBGH. The court determined the state did not show the label was supported by an interest “other than gratification of consumer curiosity.”

The rBGH battle set a possible precedent for the GMO-labeling issue. After a struggle that went on for a decade or more, the courts ruled that labeling could only be voluntary, as former agriculture secretary Roger Allbee remembers.

But, as Bray observes, “as soon as consumers got interested in the issue, it drove rBGH out of Vermont milk. Agri-Mark said they wouldn’t accept milk that was produced with rBGH. The most powerful force is not regulators, it is consumers. We live in a free market, capitalist society, and the most powerful force is consumers. The most effective path forward, given the history of labeling, is to leave it to the consumer.”

In the end, farmers didn’t have trouble dropping rBGH, said Laggis, whose husband is a dairy farmer. Giving the whole herd a shot “was a real pain in the butt every two weeks, so it was not a big thing to say goodbye to.”

Legal challenges

Another possible roadblock in the Senate, if proponents stick to required labeling, is the worry that there will be a legal challenge. The House Agriculture Committee was acutely aware of this threat and carefully considered the language of H.112.

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Partridge, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, announces the result of the 8-3 vote in favor of the GE labeling bill that she supported. Sitting next to her is Vice Chair Rep. Richard Lawrence, R-Lyndonville, who opposed the legislation.  Photo by Andrew Stein

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Partridge, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, announces the result of the 8-3 vote in favor of the GE labeling bill that she supported. Sitting next to her is Vice Chair Rep. Richard Lawrence, R-Lyndonville, who opposed the legislation. Photo by Andrew Stein

Carolyn Partridge, chair of the House Ag panel, is convinced the bill can withstand three potential federal legal challenges. The vulnerability most often mentioned is the “dormant Commerce Clause” of the Constitution—which gives the federal government the right to limit the commerce powers of the states. There are also First Amendment issues and possible federal preemption under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
The House Agriculture Committee worked with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and the Vermont Law School’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic to develop the final language of the bill.

“We feel we addressed all three of those issues, so that our legislation will stand up to any court challenge,” Partridge said. The Vermont Attorney General’s Office, she said, might have a “more nuanced response.”

Bridget Asay, an assistant attorney general, who lost a 2011 landmark prescription drug case at the U.S. Supreme Court, said she advised House Agriculture that “there is significant risk of litigation and expenses associated with it (H.112).”

Inconclusive science

Scientific research has not conclusively shown either the safety or danger of GMO foods. Len Bull, recently retired chair of the Vermont Agricultural and Forestry Products Board and a UVM research scientist in dairy and animal science testified before the Legislature. He asks why, “if these are really safe foods, the seed companies didn’t think it would be good to bring them to the marketplace with that information?”

But the seed companies didn’t make the studies public, and that means there must be more reliable, independent research that is made available to consumers, he says.

“If there are compounds or triggers in GMOs of foods that can cause any kind of reaction, then research needs to be done to clarify what causes the effects,” Bull said. “Then they should be corrected or taken off the market.”

Allbee, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture under Gov. Jim Douglas, says a voluntary labeling law is more practical. Like Bull, he questions the wisdom of labeling until the science of GE foods is publicly available. “The issue is balance and good and independent scientific review of data and analysis,” Allbee said.

Rep. John Bartholomew, D-Hartland, who supported H.112, concluded that it is better to highlight uncertainty than ignore it. “As I’ve said, significant disagreement remains among scientific experts about the safety of GE foods. There are unanswered health questions because the studies have not been done, but that is why labeling is needed – so we can potentially detect any adverse health effects from GE products. Labeling can serve as a risk management measure to deal with scientific uncertainty.”

Allbee and Bull back a national standard, as they believe it’s likely that the cost of compliance, if state labeling is imposed, would mean higher prices for consumers.

The European Union has funded $200 million in research on GMOs, according to a 2010 report on 50 recent projects involving 400 research groups. The research was conducted by independent scientists as well as interested parties — the corporations that produce the seeds.

The report concluded that it is not possible to determine the safety or danger of GMO foods at this juncture. Even so, the World Health Organization says the effect of genetic modification on health and the environment have not been fully explored. WHO has called for case-by-case “risk assessments” of GM seeds. Meanwhile, the EU adopted mandatory labeling regulations in 2004 but has not yet uniformly applied the rules. And labeling is not required on food with less than 1 percent DNA or protein resulting from genetic modification.

Kate Robinson

Comment Policy

VTDigger.org requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Be succinct and to the point. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer. If your comment is over 500 words, consider sending a commentary instead.

We personally review and moderate every comment that is posted here. This takes a lot of time; please consider donating to keep the conversation productive and informative.

The purpose of this policy is to encourage a civil discourse among readers who are willing to stand behind their identities and their comments. VTDigger has created a safe zone for readers who wish to engage in a thoughtful discussion on a range of subjects. We hope you join the conversation. If you have questions or concerns about our commenting platform, please review our Commenting FAQ.

Privacy policy
  • Connie Godin

    Yeah adding mandatory labeling as well as voluntary labeling would be so confusing. My head explodes just thinking about it as I’m so unable to process all that information. What an idiot HE is. Monsanto just agreed no sell unmodified seeds in Europe must be the education there is better and they can handle it. Vermonters and people in AT LEAST 26 other states want this, but why listen to the people who elect you.

  • Connie Godin

    …..not to sell GMO modified seeds….. Also we know it’s everywhere, we just want to know exactly where so we can not buy it if we don’t want to. So angry I can’t type.

  • Walter Judge

    This is the best, most informed, and most honest article I’ve read on the GMO labeling issue in Vermont. Bottom line: yes, there are rational, reasonable, legitimate arguments against the particular labeling bill passed by the House. Pro-labeling advocates “demand” to know if a food product on the store shelf contains GMOs so they can avoid it, yet if they ever eat in a restaurant, they’re eating GMO foods. Plus, if you eat meat or dairy, even if it’s “local,” you’re indirectly consuming GMOs. The House bill gives meat, dairy, and restaurants a free pass, while penalizing others. Why? Moreover, the House bill doesn’t say whether, why, or how a well-intentioned, responsible, local Vermont prepared food company, should have to label its product as “containing GMOs” just because it can’t be sure whether all of its ingredients, directly or indirectly, are GMO free.

  • An excellent and thoughtful article. Thank you. Two points: a) you referred to 2010 report of EU funded studies on GMOs. In fact hardly any of the studies were on food safety; most that were covered methodology/protocols and were not actual safety assessments; apart from the recent study by Prof. Serralini and team, no studies have long at long-term/life time impacts.
    b)a respondent mentioned Monsanto’s statement they are not pursuing application to the EU for authorisation for GM crops. Don’t be fooled by this. It is just Monsanto stepping back to get space to hit harder; See http://www.gmeducation.org/government-and-corporations/p213451-monsanto-s-gm-retreat-from-europe:-don-t-believe-a-word.html
    Lawrence Woodward
    Citizens Concerned about GM

  • How about some “sunshine” laws that would require businesses to disclose what they’re putting into the products sold to us as food, what is in the slurry that is pumped into our ground and subterranian waters, what is in the effluence that is released from the manufacturing points and into our surface waters, what is in the smokestack emissions that cloud the air we breath and drop chemical soaked rains around the world?

    We push for sunshine into the workings of our governments, and this is a good thing. But our local, state and federal governments are regulators that very rarely engage in the production of pollutants.

  • Randy Koch

    Weird reasoning for dropping mandatory labels:
    1. GMOs are already almost everywhere
    2. There are competing labels

    These both seem more like reasons to support a Vermont label.

  • Barry Kade

    Be wary of anyone quoting unnamed “experts.” Yes, GMO food is ubiquitous and difficult to avoid. That doesn’t mean that it is confusing to point this fact out to the consumer. Disturbing perhaps, but not confusing.
    The truth shall set you free.
    There is no God. There is no Satan. But there sure as hell is Monsanto!

  • Grant Ingle

    GMO labeling would be confusing? What doublespeak!

    The lack of GMO labeling is what’s confusing…try reading through food ingredients to determine whether GMO ingredients are used or not… I’ve had resort to contacting food manufacturers directly to determine if the maltodextrine, corn syrup or modified food starch is from GMO or non-GMO crops…most are forthright about identifying ingredients but far too many don’t actually know the source of their ingredients.

    There is conclusive research about the dangers of GMO food and feed — see the following well-documented report that debunks several of the assertions made by pro-GMO proponents:

    Many restaurants are already addressing the GMO issue. Most savvy restaurants….even national chains…have gluten-free menu items and are now adding non-GMO menu items as well. Restaurants that fail to address the GMO food issue will soon lose both customers and income.

  • Janice Prindle

    Americans have a right to know if GMO products are part of any of the ingredients in their food. Vermonters should be out in front on this one, and I find Bray’s arguments about how complicated it will be, less than compelling on this moral issue. It can hardly be more complicated for food processors than listing all of their chemical ingredients– and if they don’t like it, they can simplify by seeking out non-GMO suppliers. They are in a far better position to do so than the average consumer. Of course, a majority of these companies are actually owned by Monsanto, even though they market their products as small, “family” firms with “all natural” ingredients (Kashi, for example).
    The issue goes far beyond health concerns — and we should all be aware of the extent to which our federal government has been compromised, in studying and approving food and drugs, by the influence of Monsanto and other companies, who pay hefty honoraria to regulators as “consultants.” GMO is a grave threat to the biodiversity of the planet, with international implications. As Monsanto seeds drift and drive out non-GMO seeds, Monsanto goes after the farmers whose land their seeds have invaded, suing them for patent violations. Increasingly, it controls the seed supply. India’s high court ruled recently that Monsanto cannot patent an organism, as they are doing here in the U.S. with their GMO seeds. The battle is just heating up abroad.

    It misses the point entirely to suggest that voluntary “non GMO” labeling by some responsible companies already solves this problem; it does nothing beyond give some well-heeled individuals with access to these more expensive products a sense of false security, while the larger threat to the environment, and to our democracy, is ignored.

    I am also offended by the poster below who suggested GMO labeling is silly because we will still have to eat GMO food in restaurants, etc. As though all Americans have equal access to restaurants, organic food, and the luxury of choice. The move to label GMO ingredients is an effort to begin to address the assault by the Monsanto empire on real farmers, on the American people and the world food supply. States like Vermont need to act because our federal government, for the reason stated, will not act. If even a few states require GMO labels, the Monsanto-owned food processors will have to come out of the closet and label. This will give all consumers, including institutions (schools,universities, hospitals and such), the power to make informed choices — including the choice about whether or not to support Monsanto’s bid to take over the world food supply.
    That’s really what is at stake here. Complicated? Sure. Democracy is complicated. But consider the alternative.

  • Deb Tyson

    PROBLEM HERE IS, Its not the people who are confused, its the idiots we have running our government, who don’t get it!

  • Grace Gershuny

    Thanks for a bit more depth than offered elsewhere in the media.

    Lots of good rejoinders to the nonsense that labeling GMO foods would be confusing to consumers. It is important to sort out the difference between ‘possibly contaminated with a trace of GMO’ and ‘contains GMO’. I’ll just stick to pointing out a couple of inaccuracies:

    1. I’m surprised that Chris Bray does not fully understand the organic rules, but he made one very inaccurate statement in suggesting that “unless organic food is “100 percent organic,”there is no guarantee it doesn’t contain GMOs.” WRONG! The “non-organic” ingredients that are allowed in up to 5% of an organically labeled product cannot be derived from GMOs. This is strictly enforced, and suppliers of allowed non-organic ingredients like citric acid have to attest that GMOs are not used to produce their product.

    2. While it is true that most of the feed corn grown in Vermont is now GMO, very little of it is used for meat production – most goes to dairy cattle. Obviously, not the organic ones (and organic dairy is now a significant portion of the total). There is lots of organic and strictly grass-fed meat (so far there is no GMO grass) available in Vermont, a trend that is hopefully on the increase.

    The article also failed to mention the various states that have now passed similar legislation, with implementation contingent on passage by enough other states. Momentum for a national labeling requirement is building too – in my opinion it is inevitable.

    Grace Gershuny

  • Len Bull

    Correction: I am not at UVM any more. I was Chair of Animal Sciences from 1981-89 and then moved to North Carolina State until 2009 when I retired andcame back to VT. I am Emeritus Professor of Animal and Poultry Sciences at North Carolina State University.

  • Michael Colby

    There’s one simple way to clear up all this “confusion” about labeling GMOs: Ban GMOs.

  • Walter Judge

    That’s right, be honest about your real agenda and try to ban GMOs, if you can. For many of the people screaming about GMOs, the labeling thing isn’t about “choice.” It’s really an attempt to stigmatize GMOs into oblivion. By food elitists who won’t be happy until the only choice we all have is organic.

    • Don Peabody

      “Food elitists”?

  • Janice Prindle

    I have to respond to the unpleasant statement by Walter Judge. There’s no hidden agenda here: people who want GMO food labeled, so consumers can boycott it,would definitely rather not have it at all. We, however, are not the “food elitists.” We are the people concerned about public health and the health of the planet, concerned that when Monsanto controls all food and feed crop seeds in the country, and (their goal) the world, most people won’t be able to afford to eat. We are the people wondering why you are so worried you’ll be forced to eat food that comes to you the way nature created it. If there’s only going to end up being one “choice,” why should it have to be GMOs? Why would you want to enrich a handful of corporate executives at the expense of the public and the planet?

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "What’s in a label? Possibly the source of your food"