With Deadline Looming for Vermont’s GMO Law, Will Congress Pass Legislation to Address GMO Labeling?


There was a lot of activity last week on Capitol Hill in an effort to pass legislation that would address the labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) before the July 1, 2016 implementation date of Vermont’s Act 120[1] (and accompanying Rule 121).  Act 120 will be the first mandatory labeling law that requires food produced with genetic engineering (GE) to be labeled as such.[2]  The law applies to raw agricultural products (e.g., corn, squash) and processed foods (e.g., crackers, soda, cereals), that are sold in stores in the state of Vermont.  Manufactures will need to label food products as either: (1) “produced with genetic engineering,” (2) “partially produced with genetic engineering,” or (3) “may be produced with genetic engineering.”  The law also prohibits such foods from being labeled “natural” and sets out statutory damages of “not more than $1,000.00 per day, per product” for violations of the Act.  As the implementation date gets closer, the food industry continues to advocate to Congress to find a solution that will prevent the creation of multiple state specific labeling standards for products that are produced with GMOs.

On March 1, 2016, the Senate Agriculture Committee voted in favor of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015[3] (known as the SAFE Act), which will essentially prevent states from passing mandatory food labeling laws for GMOs, such as Vermont’s Act 120, and require FDA to regulate the distribution and labeling of foods produced with GE.  Opponents of the legislation are calling the SAFE Act the Deny Americans the Right to Know Act[4] (or the DARK Act), because it would, among other things, preempt states from requiring GMO labeling.[5]  However, legislators who support the SAFE Act take the stance that a “50-state patchwork of GMO labeling laws” will be costly and predict that manufacturers will pass those costs on to consumers.  Additionally, legislation such as Act 120 may impose a potential burden on farmers and ranchers because it applies to raw agricultural products and would include any foods derived from bioengineered seeds.[6]  Proponents of the SAFE Act also argue that mandatory GMO labeling may imply to consumers that foods that contain GMOs are not safe, when in fact the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that they are.  In 2015, FDA issued a public statement where it stated that “credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from GE plant varieties marketed to date are as safe as comparable, non-GE foods.”[7]

Despite FDA’s stance on safety, consumers continue to advocate for the disclosure of GMOs on food labeling, and Congress is actively seeking a bill that both the food industry and consumer groups can support.  On March 2, 2016, a new alternative legislation to the SAFE Act, called the Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act, was introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley that would require manufacturers to disclose the presence of GE ingredients on the nutritional facts panels, “while ensuring that food producers are not subject to confusing or conflicting labeling requirements in different locations.” [8]  The bill provides manufacturers with options for disclosing the presence of GMOs, but does not require that the information appear on the front panel of the food label.[9]  Under this legislation, food companies will have four ways to include the information on food labels, including the option of just adding a statement at the end of the ingredients list that the product was “produced with genetic engineering.[10]

As July 1st gets closer, we will have to stay tuned to see if Congress can come to a timely resolution to this issue that will satisfy both the consumer advocate groups and avoid the creation of a patchwork of GMO labeling laws across the country.

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[1] Additional information about Act 120, which was signed into law on May 8, 2014, and its implementation can be found at here.

[2] Vermont is not the only state to have passed GMO legislation.  GMO legislation was also passed in Connecticut and Maine.  However, the laws in Connecticut and Maine contain provisions that state that the laws cannot be implemented unless several other states approve similar labeling laws.  To date, there have also been over 70 bills introduced in over 30 states to require GE labeling.  See http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/976/ge-food-labeling/state-labeling-initiatives.

[3] For more information about the SAFE Act, please visit http://pompeo.house.gov/gmo/.

[4] See http://www.justlabelit.org/dark-act/

[5] Id.

[6] See Senate Panel Backs Stopping States from Mandating GMO Food Labels, available at http://www.sfgate.com/food/article/Senate-committee-passes-GMO-labeling-bill-6863252.php.

[7] See Consumer Info About Food from Genetically Engineered Plants, available at http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodScienceResearch/GEPlants/ucm461805.htm.

[8]See Merkley, Leahy, Tester, Feinstein Introduce GMO Food Labeling Legislation, available at http://www.merkley.senate.gov/news/press-releases/merkley-leahy-tester-feinstein-introduce-gmo-food-labeling-legislation.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

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