Business & Economy

Story + video: Shumlin signs landmark GMO labeling law

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday signed Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling bill into law on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier. Joining him was Brigid Armbrust, 11, of West Hartford (in black), who launched a letter-writing campaign in support of GMO labeling. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday signed Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling bill into law on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier. Joining him was Brigid Armbrust, 11, of West Hartford (in black), who launched a letter-writing campaign in support of GMO labeling, and her sister, Mollie. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Vermont will be the first state in the nation to require food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients. It will also likely be the first state to defend the GMO labeling law in court, state officials say.

The fight ahead did not cloud a festive bill-signing on the Statehouse steps Thursday afternoon where more than 100 pro-labeling public health advocates, lawmakers and residents cheered in support of the landmark policy.

“Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: They want to know what’s in their food,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said. “We are pro-choice. We are pro-information. Vermont gets it right with this bill.”

The law requires food manufacturers selling in Vermont to label products containing genetically engineered ingredients starting July 1, 2016. These products can also no longer be labeled “natural” or “naturally made.”

Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who has been pushing for the bill for much of his nearly two decades in the Legislature, said Vermont’s law will create a “domino effect” across the nation.

“This is one of the cases where grassroots democracy really did win the day and hopefully we can carry it on into the future,” Zuckerman said.

Most commodity crops sold in the U.S. are genetically engineered to ward off pests and withstand applications of weed-killing herbicides. The majority of processed foods sold in supermarkets contain genetically modified ingredients.

There is no scientific consensus whether genetically modified foods are safe for consumption. But the pro-labeling chorus in Vermont was about consumers’ “right to know” what is in their food.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said lawmakers received letters from multinational companies threatening to challenge the state’s policy in court.

“A lot of times that scares people. But you know what? Not us,” Campbell said. “We are going to do what is right for the people of Vermont and the people of this country. And that’s to make sure that you have the right to know what is in your food.”

The biotechnology industry, which manufactures genetically engineered food products, opposes Vermont’s legislation. Industry representatives prefer a national solution instead and there have been many predictions that they will sue Vermont over the law.

“Unfortunately, when labels are mandated to promote one product over another, as this one in Vermont, the additional cost burden is placed on the state’s farmers, food manufacturers, grocers and consumers,” said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for Biotechnology Industry Organization, the world’s largest industry trade group, in a statement Thursday.

She said genetically modified crops are as safe as their non-GM counterparts. Programs like Vermont’s, she said, could “needlessly” increase food costs for the average household by as much as $400 per year.

The Vermont Attorney General anticipates defending the law in court, which he estimates could cost $1 million to win and $5 million or more to lose.

“The constitutionality of the GMO labeling law will undoubtedly be challenged,” Sorrell said in a statement.

“I can make no predictions or promises about how the courts will ultimately rule but I can promise that my office will mount a vigorous and zealous defense of the law that has so much support from Vermont consumers,” Sorrell said.

That’s why the bill includes a $1.5 million special fund reserved for defending the state in court. This money would be raised from state appropriations, private donations and surplus settlement proceeds. The state is taking private donations through a newly created donation website,

Paul Burns is executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which organized a grassroots campaign backing the labeling law that gathered more than 32,000 signatures across the state.

“By passing this law with no strings attached, Vermont has sent a message out loud and clear: that no company – no matter how big, no matter how rich, no matter how powerful – can deny you the right to know what’s in your food,” Burns said.

Unlike other states’ GMO labeling policies that would take effect only when neighboring states pass similar policies, Vermont’s law does not have a so-called trigger.

“We aren’t waiting for anybody else … to us it’s OK to stand up and protect our citizens,” Burns said.

But opponents of the bill question whether Vermont has a large enough market to force food manufacturers to label products.

“Will hundreds or thousands of food producers agree to separately label their products exclusively for the Vermont market, because of this law, or will they simply decide to ‘write Vermont off’ and not sell their products in Vermont?” said Walter Judge, a lawyer with the Vermont firm Downs Rachlin Martin.

Environmentalists point out that genetically engineered crops allow for the heavy application of weed killers, and U.S. farmers this year are using more herbicides to kill off herbicide-resistant “superweeds.”

Carl Russell chairs the board for Rural Vermont, an agricultural advocacy organization supporting the policy.

“It now gives people the opportunity to not only know what goes in their food, but it also gives them a choice to support the kind of agriculture that they want to see in the state of Vermont,” Russell said.

This article was updated at 5:45 p.m. Thursday.

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  • boots wardinski

    labeling is unnecessary. just do not buy crap!

  • boots wardinski

    just do not eat crap!

  • Tommy Gardner

    That’s a really good photo.

  • Hod Palmer, III

    Wouldn’t a “GMO Free” label been a lot easier?

    • Ross Lavoie

      It would be much easier, but it makes too much sense. GMO FREE products will cost a premium and it makes sense to make the people who prefer those foods pay for the added labeling costs. These manufactures will probably want to label their products as GMO FREE for marketing purposes anyways. Instead of using common sense our wise leaders in Montpelier have decided to add more cost’s to the products that everyone else eats. This law would be no different than changing all packaging to Say NON ORGANIC and have the Organic foods not be labeled, but he producers would still want to label their foods as Organic.
      Common sense never prevails in our capital.

    • Wendy wilton

      Producers of GMO free foods usually do label that way, so if you want GMO free you can find it, however it’s a challenge to eat GMO free. It is very expensive.

      That brings up a serious problem once the labeling goes into effect. Some food manufacturers will not make a special effort for the VT market and this will certainly increase food costs. Many Vermonters are struggling to pay off the fuel bill after this winter. Increasing food costs will be problematic. Most people do not even know that GMO differs from organic or ‘natural’ ingredients. We will be going to NY and NH to buy corn chips, I guess.

      The majority of foods have some GMO component. For companies that may be unsure they may label defensively “may contain GMO product”, like the items produced in same facilities as tree nuts or peanuts do, even if they believe it is not GMO. It’s very difficult to grow soy that is not GMO, and large corn crops. Good crops in some third world countries would be impossible without GMO varieties that are drought resistant which help feed the world. I don’t know about wheat, but I’m guessing it’s the same.

      Regarding the GMO labeling legal defense fund I have a question. Since Govenor Shumlin is so supportive is going to give generously to the fund? If so, how much will he give? After all, he’s worth $10 million and this legislation will cost Vermonters dearly, both at the grocery store and in our tax bill to defend the likely lawsuit. It cost millions for Sorrel to defend the silly lawsuits against Entergy and campaign finance, both of which he lost at the US Supreme Court. VT Digger, I hope you keep tabs on this fund and who contributes!

  • Mary Daly

    I can’t believe that the legislature passed a bill guaranteed to cause a law suit, authorized 1.5 million dollars to pay for said law suit which may not be enough money, in a year when so many Vermonters are very concerned re. high taxes. What were they thinking!!!

  • Mary Daly

    I can’t believe the legislature passed a bill that will guarantee a law suit, added 1.5 million to the budget to pay for said law suit knowing that may not be enough money when Vermonters are already worried about their tax burden. What were they thinking!!!

    • David Zuckerman

      There is no money from this years budget being diverted to the fund. If there is extra money from settlements that the AG office wins, that money will go to the fund. At this point, there is no effect on your tax bill.

      • Peter Everett

        Wanna bet there will be a costly, negative, effect on our tax bills!!!
        Gov’t can never do anything without hitting the taxpayers pockets.
        It’s amazing how 150 people require so much money to appease their monetary appetites. You would think they would all be obese, if they ate the way they require OUR money to pay for their “wants”.

  • David Zuckerman

    The biotechnology representative speaks of a $400 food increase is a total scare tactic. That number comes from a study that said IF people choose to buy all organic to avoid GMO then their food bill will go up.

    That is simple capitalism. The consumers will decide if they want to spend more to buy organic (or in fact, reduce that cost by purchasing conventional non-GMO). For those that are ok eating GMO or just continue buying what they have been buying, then there will be virtually no added cost. The cost for a company to change the label on a box, with two years notice, is a teeny tiny cost of the consumer product. Once again, more scare tactics with little validity from the industrial food world.

    • David Dempsey

      Why wouldn’t other states wait for another state to pass this law before they enact it. They know that Vermont always wants to be the first in the nation to do anything. Why would they risk their money when Vermont will take all the risk and they can sit back and see what happens. If the idea is to let people know what is in their food, how can you justify excluding farmers from the law. Maybe some people would like to know if GMOs are present in the beef, milk, eggs, vegetables, apples, strawberries etc that are from Vermont farmers. Pure hypocrasy.

  • Peter Everett

    Whether this is a good/bad law makes no difference with me. I’m going to ignore it, for the most part, as I usually do with laws I feel are unneeded (a lot like Eric Holder not enforcing laws he disagrees with).
    I’m just so sick of gov’t trying to regulate everything in my/our lives.
    Why is so much money being spent on education, when those in power feel we’re too dumb to know what is best for ourselves? Seems to me if gov’t feels we are not capable of watching out for ourselves, why waste all this money on education. Instead of property taxes continually going up, they should continually go down be cause sooner or later we will have to know ZERO, gov’t will provide everything for us and will also do our thinking.
    Thank God (I know in VT I’m not supposed to mention that word), I’ll be long gone when this takes place. It’s my kids and grandkids I’ll feel sorry for.

  • Lawrence W. Hamel

    Way to go Shumlim! We passed another useless law that we know will cost taxpayers at least 1.5 MILLOIN dollars at best or 5 million at worst . If the news is correct 95% of the food produced contains gmo’s what is left to eat? So what if the cost of food goes up by 400 dollars a year and manufacturers pull their products from the state and drive costs up even more? Have any of these people been to the grocery store lately?
    One more way to drive people and business out of Vermont

  • sandra miller

    Congratulations Vermont – give people information! The industries promoting and profiting from GMOs claim that giving people information is equivalent to promoting one industry over another – “when labels are mandated to promote one product over another . . .”. Nothing is being said about one being better than another, advocating for one product over another.
    Vermont has a legislature that has had the courage to stand up for people being informed, despite the threat of lawsuit. Doesn’t it make you wonder what those industries are so afraid of that they need to threaten a lawsuit to keep information away from people? Methinks they doth protest too much!

  • sandra bettis

    the vga is like the nra – they like to threaten thru initimidation. i am glad to see the legislators stand up for the people and not cave to big business.

  • Good job Vermont. Now that you have passed a law to protect our food from chemicals, how about getting the ANR to protect our capital city’s drinking water from chemicals ? Or would you rather have the rest of the country that believes us to be an environmental leader know about it first ?

    • Rick Battistoni

      FYI, GMO foods do not have chemicals added to them. Organisms genetically modify themselves all the time, naturally. It’s called a mutation. All that is done to a GMO is that the mutation is specific and controlled.

  • Michael Colby

    And they all celebrated by eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that was produced via GMO-fed cows! Oh, the irony. It gets better, too: It won’t be labeled because Vermont’s dairy and meat products are exempt from the new law.

    What a huge waste of time, money and energy. It’s what Food & Water used to call “doing bad and feeling good about it.”

  • Ralph Colin

    The absurdity of this law is that the labeling tells the consumer very little indeed.

    If the product is known to contain a GMO, it must indicate that in the labeling. If it is not known for sure whether or not the product involves GMO processing, the label must say ONLY that it “MAY” have a GMO factor. In NO CASE DOES ANY GMO INGREDIENT HAVE TO BE SPECIFICALLY IDENTIFIED.

    Well now, that sure gives the consumer lots of important information, doesn’t it?

    You don’t have to believe me. Read it for yourself. It’s H.112 and the pertinent labeling information is in Section 3043 starting on Page 42.

    All this fuss over practically nothing. Lots of rhetoric and lots of wasted time. This gives you an pinpoint insight into the type of nonsense that is countenanced under the Golden Dome. And if this example isn’t enough to get your blood boiling, just remember that those who both sponsored and voted for this law did so knowing that it probably will engender a constitutional lawsuit against the State of Vermont (you and me) brought by those who produce the food and that if Vermont loses the suit, it could conceivably cost us upwards of SEVEN MILLION DOLLARS!

    Time and energy well spent, eh?

    That’s what politics as it is practiced by our governor and those in the majority leadership of our legislature saddle us.

    Happy now?

  • Lance Hagen

    I spoke to a friend of mine, who is a VP for a large national food manufacture. I asked him what his company would do about the GMO law passed in Vermont.

    His company hasn’t taken a position as yet, but he suspects that they just would not sell their products in the Vermont market. He said the Vermont market is just too small, to warrant special labels. When we spoke about cost of labels, he explained, that it is just not the labeling cost that present a problem, but the fact that products heading for Vermont will need to be segregated from the rest of the product population. So there is extra logistics costs.

    You would think that the legislature would have planned and funded an ‘impact study’ on food supplies and cost of implementing this law.

    • Peter Everett

      If one company stops selling its products in VT, what will stop others from doing likewise?
      Now, the law of supply and demand will come into play. With less product, possibly available, what will happen to price? Manufacturers produce other products beside GMO products. If they don’t ship one style/variety, why should they ship any product? Possible result, less product = price increase. This isn’t a definite, but, it is a real possibility. Again, the consumer may be hurt by an over regulating, narrow minded government.
      Does anyone know when gov’t will ever come to it’s senses?
      Wasn’t this country founded be cause of this type of government?

  • Judith McLaughlin

    I’m a little surprised that Zuckerman is complaining about “scare tactics”. With absolutely NO proof that GMO products are bad for us….he’s conducted a 20-year scare campaign here in Vermont.

    How hypocritical.

  • sandra bettis

    there is plenty of proof that roundup (which is sprayed on gmo produce) is bad for us. why do you think 60 other countries have banned them? why do you think the suicide rate in india is so high? if gmo’s are so great, they should be proud to label them!

  • walter judge

    “Why do think the suicide rate in India is so high?”

    That is a totally insane thing to say.

    And ironic.

    • sandra bettis

      india allows gmo’s. after a few yrs (and lots of roundup), the gmo crops fail. the farmers are left with few choices – they cannot go back to organic after ruining the soil. insane? ironic? i guess you could say both.

      • Wendy wilton

        Round Up is a herbicide. One of the compelling reasons to use GMO seed is to reduce or eliminate pesticide and herbicide use.
        Round Up is very toxic, I don’t use it at my home for that reason. I would eat a GMO food that is not applied with chemicals vs. Non-GMO plastered with herbicide and pesticide anyday. People need to better understand the science of all of this!

        • sandra bettis

          wendy, round up is sprayed on gmo produce. yes, ‘people’ need to do their homework.

          • walter judge

            Round Up and other herbicides and pesticides are sprayed in larger quantities on non-GMO crops. Yes, some “people” do need to do their homework.

  • James McGurn

    “There is no scientific consensus whether genetically modified foods are safe for consumption.” Really? Why do you suppose that numerous countries in the EU and South, Central America have BANNED GMOs? Most of the studies have been bought and paid for by Monsanto and other Factory Farm supporters. The truth is being suppressed, using the template that the tobacco industry set up in the last century. Simply put they pay big bucks to scientists to lie for them.

    • walter judge

      Please prove the outrageous statement that most of the studies have been “bought and paid for by Monsanto…”

      Does that include the AMA? The World Health Organization? The National Institutes of Health? Where do you get your paranoid information?

      • Kate Webb

        Walter – the writer is probably referring to fact that the FDA accepts testing completed by the producer as sufficient. It does not require independent or peer-reviewed studies.

  • Constance Brown

    GMOs exist mainly to resist weed-killers. I do not particularly want to eat fruits and veggies that are soaked in weed-killers like Round-up. I like to buy local, so I applaud this new law.

    • Michael Colby

      Constance Brown, are you aware that Vermont’s GMO crops are exempt from this labeling law? Yep, 81,000 acres worth — all “soaked in weed-killers” and developing more resistance to them by the season. So to “applaud” this law because of your fondness for “local” makes no sense at all.

  • sandra bettis

    the fda allows companies (monsanto) to test their own products. should we trust those tests?

    • Peter Everett

      Should we trust the FDA?

    • walter judge

      How much do you know about how the FDA works? The FDA has panels of scientists who review not only the results of industry studies, but also the protocols of how the studies were conducted. Unless you’ve got hard proof that the FDA is corrupt or incompetent, I’d stop throwing around accusations or suggestions that they can’t be trusted.

      I trust them. When I was young, the Europeans allowed the drug thalidomide. The FDA didn’t. That’s why Europe had thalidomide babies and the US doesn’t.

      • Peter Everett

        I trust the FDA almost as much as I trust Congress, President, Vt Legislature, Governor, etc. Most, if not all, branches of gov’t are not worthy of our trust.
        I know I’m cynical, but, I think rightfully so. What has gov’t done recently that warrants our trust?

    • NO, we should NOT trust the FDA -they have been overrun by Monsanto workers. These infiltrators are trained and well paid:

  • So, I find it hard to believe that some people, here, have no problem with roundup. Considering a self propagating cell of the chemical “roundup” has been genetically inserted into seeds to make them resistant to roundup. THESE SEEDS PRODUCE ROUNDUP in all plants grow from them, also not being able to produce a second generation seed, because the seeds have been “modified/hybrid”. When you eat roundup ready produce, you ARE eating the chemical.