Vermont Doesn’t Require GMO Labels on Milk or Cheese Under New Law

That’s a pretty big loophole, considering the state is best known for its dairy products.

A worker trims a three-year-old cheddar cheese block before cutting it into smaller portions for packaging at Shelburne Farm in Shelburne, Vt. (Photo: Joanne Ciccarello/'The Christian Science Monitor' via Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

As Vermont governor Peter Shumlin signed the state’s acclaimed GMO-labeling bill into law Thursday, a tiny but important provision of the bill alarmed some of his state’s most important food producers: cheesemakers.

Vermont lawmakers have left in limbo whether the state’s most iconic products, milk and cheese, will be labeled as genetically modified foods if the dairy cows are fed genetically engineered corn or soybeans. 

At the end of the bill, buried in Section 6, a provision tasks the state’s attorney general with producing a report by January 2015 to determine whether milk and milk products should be labeled.

GMO labeling is new territory, and Vermont’s law is being hailed as the most aggressive law to date—but that doesn’t mean it has gone it alone. Vermont lawmakers paid attention to prior labeling attempts in California and Washington and included some important exemptions. For example, meat—chicken, beef, or pork—that came from animals fed genetically engineered corn or soybean would not need to be labeled. Why? Because the animal itself was not genetically modified. Restaurant food, alcohol, and foods prescribed by a doctor will get a pass too.

Like meat, milk derived from a dairy cow that munched on genetically engineered cornmeal doesn't make the milk itself a genetically modified product, so state lawmakers included an exemption for the white stuff too—but maybe not for long.

“The bill that passed would give milk a temporary pass and would require the state to study if it’s a legitimate exemption,” said State Rep. Paul Ralston, who voted in favor of the bill. “Vermont is a dairy state. If we said no to GMOs except for the stuff we produce, it would be like Iowa saying they’ll label everything except GMO corn.”

Rebecca Spector, West Coast director for the Center for Food Safety, helped craft the bill and said regardless of what the attorney general finds, the exemption for dairy may still hold.

“The report can merely provide a recommendation that it should be labeled. It cannot mandate dairy to be labeled,” she said.

Bob Foster, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Middlebury who opposed the bill, says cows break down the feed, and genetically modified material doesn’t end up in the milk.

“We’ve done testing to see, just as a precautionary measure,” he explained.

While Foster’s 490 cows eat the crops he raises, including grasses and legumes, Vermont has a short growing season, and the feed company he relies on to supplement in colder months buys commodity corn and soybean, making it nearly impossible to identify whether or not the corn is genetically modified.

Tom Bivins, executive director of Vermont Cheese Council, said for now, it’s just one big waiting game. Most of the council’s 42 members are small-scale cheesemakers, and many rely on organic milk, so they would not require a label. To meet the organic standard, dairy cows aren’t fed GMO feed.

“We’re waiting to see what the attorney general’s findings will be, and that will give us roughly one year to formulate a plan if the law is going to change substantially for dairy,” Bivins noted.

Whether or not that dairy exemption will stay in place remains to be seen, but for cheesemakers, there’s a second worry “wheying” them down, so to speak. It has to do with the type of rennet they use to make their cheese.

“To make milk into cheese, you have to coagulate the milk, and usually we do that with rennet,” said Louella Hill, a cheesemaking instructor at San Francisco Milk Maid.

Some rennet comes from animal sources, and others start off as a yeast or mold. There are vegetable-based rennets too, but some can provide unpredictable results. That’s why many cheesemakers turn to rennet known as FPC (fermentation produced chymosin), which is produced through genetic engineering. The Dairy Research Institute estimates that FPC is used in 90 percent of the cheese produced in the U.S.; none of it is labeled as a GMO ingredient.

While the new Vermont law includes an exemption for food that could be labeled “solely because it includes one or more processing aids or enzymes produced with genetic engineering,” it’s not clear if cheese is, well, in the clear. The very process of making cheese means small amounts of FPC remain.

“We want little bits of that rennet in the cheese. It’s an essential part of the ripening of the cheese,” Hill said.

At this point, cheesemakers are more concerned about the attorney general’s report on the dairy exemption than they are about disclosing FPC, according to Bivins.

“There are natural and vegetarian rennets they can find. They’re more worried about the impact of a ruling on feed and how that will affect the end product,” Bivins said.

No doubt it will be a hot-button issue among cheesemakers going forward. This year’s biggest American cheese conference even added a session specifically addressing GMOs.

“Cheesemakers, especially artisan-scale makers, are very conscientious. It’s going to be a big topic this year,” Hill said.

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