(Beyond Pesticides, April 18, 2014) Last week the Vermont state Senate voted 28-2 to authorize the mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. The bill, H.112, ‚ÄúAn Act Relating to the Labeling of Food Produced with Genetic Engineering,‚ÄĚ passed the Vermont House of Representatives back in May, and now goes back to the House for approval before moving to the Governor. Vermont’s legislation does not include a “trigger clause,” which is contained in¬†labeling bills passed last year in Maine and Connecticut¬†that, before¬†going into effect,¬†require other states in the New England region (including one boarding state) with an aggregate population of 20 million to pass similar laws.
If the last hurdles in the state legislature are cleared and the bill is signed by Governor Peter Shumlin (D), Vermont‚Äôs labeling law would not allow manufacturers to describe any food containing GE ingredients as ‚Äúall natural‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúnatural.‚ÄĚ Processed foods that contain a product or products with GE would be required to display in clear and conspicuous language the words, ‚Äúpartially produced with genetic engineering‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúmay be partially produced with genetic engineering.‚ÄĚ
But even if passed, Vermont‚Äôs bill faces numerous challenges from the deep pockets of the biotechnology industry and its backers in the U.S. Congress. While states such as Vermont are working to shed light on the ingredients in our food, industry found U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) to assist in helping keep Americans in the dark through HR 4432, accurately dubbed the ‚ÄúDeny Americans the Right-to-Know Act‚ÄĚ or DARK Act. The DARK Act would preempt states like Vermont from implementing mandatory labeling laws by giving the authority to label GE ingredients to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In effect, it would also allow food companies to give products with GE ingredients the ‚Äúnatural‚ÄĚ label, despite the fact that there is nothing natural about crops engineered in a lab to produce their own insecticide or tolerate¬†dangerous herbicides.
Advocates of the Vermont labeling bill also expect a fight in the courts. To that end, the bill‚Äôs language currently contains a provision setting up a fund to pay for the expected legal wrangling. The biotechnology industry has made numerous threats to sue states that pass labeling laws, but testimony to the state Senate from Vermont Law School professors and state public interest groups asserted that HR 112 is constitutional and could withstand legal challenges.
The momentum and excitement in Vermont only shows that the attempts by the biotechnology industry to squash GE labeling have not discouraged proponents, but instead galvanized more and more people to become educated about the issue and take action. The defeat of GE labeling referendums in California in Washington has only spurred additional measures in other states that will be voted on this year, notably Oregon and Colorado, where advocates recently overcame their own court battle with the biotech industry to exercise the right to¬†put a¬†labeling initiative on the ballot.
And we can‚Äôt forget that a national GE labeling bill is awaiting action in both Houses of Congress, but has yet to be voted on in committee in either the Senate or the House. National GE labeling efforts are being spearheaded by the¬†Just Label It!¬†Campaign and has garnered thousands of supporters across the country. In the meantime, the best way to avoid food with GE ingredients being purposely added to food¬†is to buy organic. Under organic certification standards, GE organisms are prohibited, although because of USDA policies that allow the proliferation of GE crops, organic production is subject to genetic drift contamination.¬†For this and many other reasons, organic products are the right choice for consumers. For more information on GE foods and labeling issues, see Beyond Pesticides‚Äô¬†Genetic Engineering website.