Business & Economy

GMO labeling would begin in July 2016, according to Senate version

Sens. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, and Dick Sears, D-Bennington. File photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
Sens. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, and Dick Sears, D-Bennington. File photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
Vermont lawmakers are poised to “boldly go where no other state has gone before,” Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said Thursday before casting his vote for an unprecedented food-labeling law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee gave H.112 unanimous approval Thursday. The bill would require the labeling of food made with genetically modified ingredients sold in Vermont.

Vermont will not wait for more states to adopt similar laws before it moves ahead with GMO labeling.

Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that included a trigger based on other states’ adoption of labeling provisions. Vermont lawmakers emulated Connecticut’s and Maine’s legislation, but did not include a trigger in H.112.

GMO label SLIDERVoter referendums for GMO labeling mandates failed in California and Washington in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Other states, including New Hampshire and New York, are considering their own standards.

As drafted, Vermont’s bill would apply to all food and drink sold in the state, except meat, milk and food sold in restaurants. After much discussion, committee members agreed it should also apply to chewing gum — but not chewing tobacco.

Lawmakers also agreed to establish a fund to cover the costs of implementing the law, including any legal challenge it might face.

“Maybe they won’t sue,” Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, quipped at one point while discussing the fund. “Maybe they’ll say, ‘Gee, Vermont, you’re doing the right thing.’”

Sears said he absolutely expects a lawsuit — which is why establishing a funding mechanism to pay for litigation is so important in his view.

Benning also anticipates a lawsuit.

“I want to make it very clear I’m not voting for this bill because I have some passionate desire to slap Monsanto,” Benning said. “This is, in my eyes, a simple request that I have the right to know what’s in my product when I buy it. No more, no less.”

The legislation previously won the support of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. It heads next to Appropriations before it goes to the Senate floor. Should it pass there, a conference committee would be needed to reconcile the bill with the version that passed the House in 2013.

If it becomes law, the Attorney General’s Office would begin rule-making immediately. Labeling requirements would take effect July 2016.

Vermont food producers

Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, thinks the delayed effective date will give food producers and retailers time to comply.

Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers’ Association, said the law would pose a problem for the state’s food producers regardless of timing. He said the fundamental challenge is a lack of uniformity with national standards.

“The action this morning concerns us in that Vermont is proceeding ahead alone in the labeling thus far,” Harrison said by phone Wednesday afternoon.

He explained that Vermont producers selling outside the state would be at a disadvantage if their GMO-labeled products compete on store shelves with brands not sold in Vermont that do not have to carry a GMO label.

The alternative would also be challenging: managing different labels for the same products, depending on where they’re sold.

Harrison said his organization does not hold a position on labeling. Grocers want to see a unified national approach that will be easier for U.S. producers to implement that would level the field of competition.

The dairy exemption

Sears and Benning both expressed serious reservations about the exemption for milk.

Often referred to as a “dairy” exemption, the provision is narrowly written. Only fluid milk would be exempt; dairy products such as yogurt or ice cream would have to be labeled if any of their non-milk ingredients contain GMOs.

The exemption is based on a lack of traceable GMO material in milk produced from cows that have consumed GMO corn, according to recent testimony by representatives from the Vermont Law School.

“Unless you’re changing the definition of genetically engineered, this bill won’t reach milk,” said Dave Rogers, policy adviser for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. He said the bottom line concern for GMO labeling advocates is genetically modified products.

Still, Sears and Benning worry about equal treatment under the law.

Food producers who are subject to the labeling law may cry foul if others are exempt, Benning said. Sears has worried out loud about a perception of favorable treatment for dairy producers in a state dominated by dairy agriculture.

They agreed to a study of the dairy exemption by the attorney general.

If the state law is litigated before Jan. 15, 2015, when the report is due, lawmakers said they would grant an indefinite extension for the study.

Special fund for litigation

Some committee members expressed reservations about the special fund for litigation, but none were concerned enough to let it affect their votes.

While no longer technically called a legal defense fund, that terminology has been used recently in the bill’s debate. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, says it sets a precedent.

She worried that it sends a signal that Vermont state government is willing to go out on a limb for monied interests.

Ashe tried in vain to establish a more general litigation fund, unattached to any particular issue such as GMO labeling.

“Isn’t that the attorney general’s budget?” White responded. She said the potential for litigation from the GMO labeling law should be handled like any other state law the attorney general steps up to defend.

Sears was adamant about setting the money aside, however.

The special fund, which is designed to cover administrative costs, will receive money from any court settlements beyond what is already forecast for fiscal year 2015.

Tobacco, Medicaid and other settlement money that is earmarked will not be touched. But if more money than expected is to flow to the General Fund, it would go to the new GMO labeling special fund, instead.

Vermonters and supporters outside the state will be allowed to contribute to the cause. Sears said he has heard from many of the bill’s supporters who have said they would be happy to donate to the litigation fund.

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Hilary Niles

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  • Robert Wager

    Why is it that no matter how many times politicians are educated on this subject they refuse to understand, GE is a breeding process not an ingredient.

    This is the place to start if interested in this subject:

    • Karl Riemer

      Possibly because they find repeated, incorrect assertions unconvincing.

      Breeding is a form of genetic modification. Transgenic technology is a different form. In other words, breeding & selection is a subset of GM, but GM ≠ breeding & selection. Genetic engineering is absolutely not a breeding process. The term exists to differentiate bioengineered organisms from sexual hybrids.

      Your position is defensible if it’s that food products from bioengineered organisms are indistinguishable if not identical to food products from bred organisms, but if your defense is that the *processes* are identical, you have to expect to be ignored.

      • Walter Judge

        You argue that GMOs are not merely a breeding process. Whether or not you are correct, you do not make the case that GMOs are an “ingredient.”

        • Karl Riemer

          I’ve read this several times and can make no sense of it.
          The first sentence is false. I did not argue; I defined, not as you’ve interpreted.
          The second sentence is true. Self-evident and trivial, but factually correct.

          • Patrick Cashman

            Oh goodie. The neo-Luddites explain why a technology that has saved countless millions of lives is suddenly “bad”.

      • Robert Wager

        Please explain how random mutations of the entire genome of food crops with zero examination of what changes( deletions, insertions, recombinations, translocations, sequence changes) is somehow safer than exact geneome sequence data, location expression patterns etc for every GE crop.

        These “traditional breeding methods” have been used for over 60 years. Ionizing radiation mutagenesis, chemical mutagenesis, and some newer ones, somaclonal variation, embryo rescue. all have far more DNA disruptions with zero testing or evaluations.

        • Karl Riemer

          a) can’t
          b) concur (except of course for the quoted phrase – that’s absurd. I don’t know what you think I was defending. For the record, it was precise use of language, without which we’re howling at the moon.)

      • Paula Schramm

        “Breeding is a form of genetic modification. Transgenic technology is a different form. In other words, breeding & selection is a subset of GM, but GM ≠ breeding & selection. Genetic engineering is absolutely not a breeding process. The term exists to differentiate bioengineered organisms from sexual hybrids.”
        Thanks, Karl, for giving a really clear response to Roger Wager’s opening comment . You did your part well….can’t force all these commenter to accept accuracy and clarity if they don’t want to, I guess…..

    • Kate Webb

      Robert – the bill does not require labeling of ingredients. It requires the labeling of foods that are produced through genetic engineering, a process specifically defined in the bill. For religious, health, environmental, economic and political reasons, many Vermonters want to make an informed choice about the way their food is produced. There is nothing in the bill that restricts the right to use or to grow food produced in this way. It is simply a right to know.

  • William Floyd

    Some simple points: After 30 plus years and hundreds of studies, the presence of GMO at the cellular level is undetectable and untraced to any types of food related health problems. Second, as a result of those facts, your food is already labeled correctly on GMOS.

    Finally, for those of us who care about health and child development, concern for other processed food additives and source ingredients is high. We avoid processed, hydrogentad, high fructose corn syrup, etc. and seek local fresh wherever and whenever we can. We already have the Organics labeling system which is De Facto GMO freedom and we avoid excess salts and fats.

    So, exactly what is this added government interference in our food system going to gain us? Nothing but a big fat legal bill and another two years of our lame, ineffective Attorney General Bill Sorrell. Great election gift for him!

    Please ask you legislators why they supported this waste and fraud bill when GMO labeling is already available through the honest, independent GMO Free Project and through our hundreds of VT Organic Farms? To give Bill Sorrell a campaign issue other than his three recent expensive national profile court cases?

    Eat right and Vote!

    • Karl Riemer

      Are you suggesting that Bill Sorrell supports this facacta legislation, or relishes defending it? Are you suggesting Bill Sorrell defends Vermont or Vermont laws *voluntarily*? Are you actually suggesting that defending indefensible legal positions is his preferred political strategy, or what he prefers doing with his life? Seriously?

      Perhaps you should investigate the AG job description, and what this particular AG has said about this particular legislation, before attributing opprobrium.

  • victor ialeggio

    William Floyd:

    “We already have the Organics labeling system…”

    Well, actually we do not have anything resembling a national standard for organic food production, as the term “Organic” continues to be co-opted for marketing purposes by larger and larger ag- and food-interests. And a similar situation applies for the term “Natural.”

    In fact, as requirements of the Federal Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are slowly coming into effect and small-scale, organic, farmers across the country are finding themselves targeted by an oppressive food safety war, driven by the agriculture & chemical industries.

    The LA Times for March 4, 2014 reports, “…that federal agents are now showing up on farmers’ doorsteps and notifying them that techniques they have long used to grow clean, healthy food will soon be prohibited under federal law. Such techniques include using compost and recycled animal waste to fertilize crops, as well as irrigating from open creeks and streams.

    Organic growers reportedly have it the worst, as the FDA’s short-sighted food safety guidelines specifically target organic growing methods as “dangerous” while favoring industrial-scale food production methods. Not only will organic farmers now be prohibited from using house-made fertilizers, but they will also have to stop tilling their cropland with grazing animals.”

    These practices have been mainstay of resurgent organic farming practices in this country since Rodale 1/1.

    As an aside, I would challenge you to find more than a handful of packaged food products on the shelves of your local “organic” grocery which do not contain either sugar (unless labelled otherwise, GMO beet sugar), or natural-sounding additives like soy lecithin or soy flour (from GMO soy), cottonseed oil (GMO cotton), or canola oil (GMO canola). GMO corn has found its way — as emulisifier, stabilizer, texturizer and preservative ingredients — into a staggering number of American packaged foodstuffs. A selection includes: ascorbic acid (vitamin C), calcium citrate, caramel, hydrolized vegetable protein, malic acid, citric acid, lactic acid, starch, maltose, maltodextrin, glucose, dextrose, sorbitol, xanthum gum, & high fructose corn syrup.

    Take a look any value-added dairy product. Every ingredient after “milk” (including “enzyme”) is likely derived from a GMO crop species, unless otherwise noted.

    • victor ialeggio

      quick update (3/4/14) from Organic Consumers Association (

      “Without any input from the public, the USDA changed the way the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) decides which non-organic materials are allowed in certified organic. The change all but guarantees that when the NOSB meets every six months, the list of non-organic and synthetic materials allowed in organic will get longer and longer.”

      Gets harder and harder to Eat Right.

  • Michael Colby

    Again, this bill does NOTHING about addressing Vermont’s extensive use of GMO crops for dairy feed (GMO corn). Last year, more than 80,000 acres of GMO corn was grown in Vermont, making it the state’s top crop.

    The sooner we get this kind of vanity/busy work legislation out of the way, we can and should start focusing on banning GMO crops within the state. It’s the kind of initiative that will address all of the GMO concerns (environmental, health, corporate control), force us to address our own extensive involvement in it and, better yet, require us to chart a much better path to our agricultural future. If Vermont ag wants to continue to market itself as “better,” it can’t also be involved in all the toxic nonsense that makes the others — apparently — “worse.” Going GMO-free puts some truth behind the marketing. Imagine that.

    • Robert Wager

      Funny how every food safety authority, every health authority and every National Academy of Science disagree with you.

      “The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” (AAAS 2012)

  • Tiki Archambeau

    If Monsanto believes – and advocates for – GMO labeling in Britain, there is no reason it cannot be implemented here.

    Nice work, lawmakers. Now how about some serious campaign finance reform (and that doesn’t mean increased limits)?

  • Ron Pulcer

    In addition to ingredients (GMO or organic), it is also interesting to know which global corporations own all or part of various “organic” food companies, as they have scaled up their operations. Check out which coffee company that Coca-Cola owns 10% of (stock ownership I would guess):

    Find Out Which Companies You Support When Buying Organic
    March 17, 2014
    By Willy Blackmore

  • Looks like Monsanto has another trick up their sleeve. They’re going to try to make it illegal, thru Congress, to label GMO:

    • victor ialeggio

      they have been kicking this idea around quite a while but only recently have come up with a suitable right-wing palooka to front it — Rep Mike Pompeo of Kansas.

      His current sponsorships include: amending the 1986 IRS code to terminate certain [alternative] energy tax subsidies & lower the corporate income tax rate; eliminate the Economic Development Admin.; speed up Natural Gas pipeline permits; and (my favorite) a bill “to properly distinguish between decorative hearth products and vented hearth heaters.”
      His legislative effectiveness ratio hovers around 2%.

  • Bravo!
    Thank you for protecting our rights as consumers to be informed about the ingredients in the food we buy.

  • Armand Brunelle

    No, NO, NO, Bad idea, Why not just have the people label any food they make when it GMO free.

  • Jackie Schmidts

    If this bill passes, Vermonters, hold on to your checkbooks. This will be very costly litigation to say the least, it will hopefully raise your taxes even more. Then, prepare yourselves for fewer food products on your store shelves. Food companies will not label their products just for your puny state. Food companies will pull the products, it won’t be worth it to sell in your high taxed, liberal socialist state. You hippies can unite against GMOs, but to your demise. GMOs are here to stay, they are safe, (show me proof otherwise) they help feed hungry people all around the world. Your selfish, ignorant position will only serve your idealism of a utopia that can’t be achieved. If you don’t like the food you buy on a shelf, grow your own, but don’t dictate to the rest of the world about a sound, safe science that will provide future generations with good food!