Vermont Could Be First US State To Mandate GMO Food Labeling

Vermont seemed more likely than ever to become the first US state to mandate the labeling of genetically modified food (GMO) after a bill passed the state house, though legislators worry about a lawsuit threat from biotech giant Monsanto.

Similar bills seeking to provide consumers with labels at the grocery store that highlight what products contain GMOs have recently failed. In California, a ballot initiative which bypassed Congress after receiving 850,000 signatures was defeated in 2012 after a large consortium of biotech companies including Monsanto spent some $50 million on an ad blitz against the legislation.

As RT reported in late April, a new federal bill which would mandate the labeling of GMOs, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, was introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR). Though few expect such laws to pass on a national level, the bill was notable for its inclusion of a wider base of bipartisan support, with nine Senate co-sponsors and 22 cosponsors in the House.

Though sixty-four other countries, including EU members, China, Russia, Brazil, India and Japan already have existing regulations in place to label GMOs for consumers the issue is a highly contentious one in the US, both at the federal and state level.

According to Senator Boxer, more than 90 per cent of Americans support the labeling of genetically engineered products. Though the Food and Drug Administration requires the labeling of over 3,000 ingredients, additives and processes it does not consider GMOs to be “materially” different as they cannot be tasted, smelled or identified by consumers by other means.

A demonstrator holds a sign during a rally in support of the state's upcoming Proposition 37 ballot measure in San Francisco

Legally, part of the argument for labeling GMOs rests on the US Patent and Trademark Office determination that GMOs are in actually materially different and novel, at least for patents filed by the biotech companies that produce and sell these products.

As for Vermont’s bill, according to coverage by local public radio no state representatives had any opposition to transparency in food labeling, though some were concerned by a looming lawsuit by the biotech industry.

“Nobody else has passed a similar bill. They all seem to be waiting for Vermont to go first and lead the nation, ” said Representative Tom Koch (R-Barre).

“What they mean is they don’t want to risk their taxpayers’ money; they want us to risk Vermonters’ money. That is a $5 million to $10 million risk, and one I am not willing to take,” he added.

No representatives on Thursday argued against the concept of more transparent food labeling. The most frequent point of opposition voiced on the floor concerned a likely lawsuit from the biotech or food industries that the Attorney General’s Office estimates could cost the state more than $5 million.

Vermont’s legislation appears to have been watered down to partly guard against the threat of legal action taken by companies like Monsanto, exempting meat, milk and eggs from animals fed or treated with genetically engineered products, which would include GMO corn feed and the rBGH cattle hormone.

In the US genetically modified food is widely available. As much as 90 per cent of corn, sugar beet and soybean crops are genetically altered, and some 70 per cent of processed foods at a typical supermarket contain GMOs. Other common GMO items include tomatoes, potatoes and squash.

If passed by Vermont’s senate and signed into law, the new labeling requirements would likely not go into effect for another two years. Activists believe that the legislation stands a good chance, owing to its wide margin of support 107-37 in the house.