April 25, 2014
As of April 23, Vermont is one step away from being the first state in the nation to require foods manufactured from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such on their packaging. House Bill 112 is headed for Governor Peter Shumlin’s desk for signature or veto, after the state House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 114-30 on Wednesday. The Vermont Senate already approved the bill by a vote of 28-2 last week.
Not only would the state law obligate food manufacturers to indicate if a product has been made in whole or in part from genetic engineering, it would also prohibit the use of descriptive phrasing like “natural” or “all natural” on such foods. The legislature’s leading purpose in passing H.B. 112 is to give consumers—who are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their food-buying decisions—information on foods they may wish to avoid or limit in their diet.
Vermont is certainly not the only state or entity recently to question the (non)labeling of genetically modified food or the use of the “natural” descriptors on such food. Several judges have grappled with the topic as an issue raised in litigation. A bill calling for greater uniformity and guidance as to front-of-package labels and food marketing buzzwords is currently pending in Congress. And Vermont’s New England neighbors—Connecticut and Maine—have already passed legislation similar to H.B. 112. Significantly, however, their laws do not become effective until a number of other states pass comparable laws:
Effective date. The Commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry shall monitor legislative activities in other states and certify to the Secretary of State and the Revisor of Statutes when legislation requiring mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food has been adopted by at least 5 contiguous states including Maine.
ME LEGIS 436 (2014), 2014 Me. Legis. Serv. Ch. 436 (H.P. 490) (L.D. 718) (WEST)
As a result, Vermont will likely be the first state to officially adopt such a law. The Washington Post says the provision was necessary to “build a broad base of support.”
As might be expected, the food industry is not taking this lying down. In fact, just a week before the Vermont Senate’s passage of H.B. 112, U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) introduced a federal bill that would nullify any such state legislation that mandates the labeling of genetically modified foods. Additionally, whether or not that federal bill—H.R. 4432—goes anywhere in Congress, Vermont’s law will, if signed by the governor, almost assuredly be challenged in court before its July 1, 2016, effective date.