Congress Is Still Trying to Undo Vermont’s GMO Labeling Law

The state now requires mandatory labeling for products containing genetically modified ingredients, but the Senate is working on a bill to override it.

(Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

Jul 5, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Power to the people—or power to the big food companies? It seems a poignant question to ask while Independence Day hangovers are still lifting and as a wildly popular Vermont state law requiring food makers to clearly label products made from GMO ingredients is poised to be squashed by lawmakers in Washington acting under the influence of the food and agriculture industries.

Last Friday was a banner day for advocates of GMO labeling. More than two years after it was passed overwhelmingly by the state’s legislature, the Vermont law finally went into effect, having survived a barrage of scare tactics and legal attacks lobbed at it by big food and big ag. It is the first law in the nation to require mandatory labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. Hailing the landmark moment at a rally in front of the statehouse in Burlington, Gov. Peter Shumlin told celebrants “Vermont had the courage to say ‘If it’s the right thing to do, what are we waiting for?’ ”

Most Americans would seem to agree. Poll after poll has found that 80 to 90 percent of Americans think food companies should be required to label products made from GMO ingredients.

The Vermont-mandated GMO labels have started cropping up in grocery stores and, for some companies, across the country. Not all companies will comply with all products sold in state, and local news station WCAX reports that some 3,000 products will slowly disappear from shelves as retailers sell off existing stock over the yearlong window allowed by the law. Some companies, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, have opted to label their more popular products, such as their flagship colas, while Pepsi Wild Cherry, for example, simply won’t be sold in Vermont.

But with the likes of General Mills, Kellogg, Campbell’s, Mars, and ConAgra responding to the state-level law with nationwide labeling for products, there is ample evidence that the kind of clear, direct GMO labels Americans say they want are not as impossible as the industry has made them out to be. Yet the momentum on Capitol Hill appears to be moving against the popular will.

Even as Vermonters celebrated their law going into effect, the U.S. Senate was moving ever closer to passing its own GMO “labeling” law. Why the scare quotes? Because while the Vermont law pretty much does what the vast majority of Americans say they want such a law to do—require clear, on-package labels identifying food products made from GMO ingredients—the Senate’s version would do anything but.

For starters, it wouldn’t do anything for at least two years—maybe more—but it would immediately nullify any state-level legislation, like Vermont’s, that requires GMO products to be labeled. It’s got more (loop)holes than Swiss cheese. As written, it could exclude a vast array of processed foods as well as any food that has meat as the main ingredient, according to Consumers Union. Far from the sort of no-nonsense label required in Vermont, food makers could opt for a lesser evil, such as using a label only scannable with a smartphone or printing a toll-free number that a customer can call “for more information.” The Vermont bill may have its own problems (it doesn’t apply to products that feature meat, for one), but it offers no way around on-package labeling.

The Senate legislation is a compromise bill that emerged from the Agriculture Committee. It was hashed out by Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D–Mich., who together have received more than $2.1 million from agribusiness donors during this election cycle alone, as Consumers Union noted. The Senate is scheduled to vote this week to end debate on the bill, which would clear the way for a final vote for passage. As Politico reported, an earlier test vote hardly bodes well for labeling advocates: 68 senators, including a fair number of farm-state Democrats, lined up to support the measure, with only 29 senators voting against it.

If the Senate’s bill makes it into law, those GMO labels featured on Vermont shelves today could end up as nothing more than collector’s items on eBay.