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Vermont's GMO Labeling Law: Caveat Emptor 

March 10, 2016
Access to information is practically a birthright today.  Whether through iPhones, iPads, the Internet, email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or other social media platforms, we literally have more information at our fingertips than ever before.  What if, however, an information source is only 50 percent accurate?  The public would almost certainly ignore or disregard that source.

It seems like common sense then that a law such as Vermont's GMO labeling statute that purports to promote transparency and the public's right to know should actually inform and educate consumers.  Indeed, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin boasted on May 8, 2014 when he signed the legislation into law that: "Vermonters take our food and how it is produced seriously, and we believe we have a right to know what is in the food we buy.  I am proud that we're leading the way in the United States to require labeling of genetically engineered food."

Unfortunately, the law, which goes into effect on July 1, misleads Vermonters.  According to a recent column by Campbell Soup Company's Vice President of Government Affairs Kelly Johnston, over half of grocery items on shelves made with GMOs won't be labeled as such under Vermont's law.  In a February 26th piece that ran in The Hill, the President and CEO of the Corn Refiners Association estimated that two-thirds of all food sold into Vermont are exempt from the law.

Instead of providing valuable, meaningful information, Vermont's law gives consumers that are interested in knowing whether the food they eat contains GMOs a false sense of security that products they purchase that aren't labeled as "Produced with Genetic Engineering" don't contain GE ingredients.  Incredibly, products that contain GMOs labeled as such will sit right next to food made with GE ingredients that won't be labeled.  This scenario actually counteracts and undermines longstanding and valuable tools such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) organic label and the various existing non-GMO labeling programs intended to help consumers interested in avoiding GMOs, whatever the reason.

Products exempt from Vermont's law include:

  • alcoholic beverages

  • cheese

  • dietary supplements

  • ice cream

  • maple syrup

  • milk

  • yogurt

Food containing meat and poultry is also exempt from the law's scope.  The labeling of such products is governed by the USDA.  Any state requirement that differs from USDA's regulatory regime is expressly preempted by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA).  Consequently, under Vermont's law, vegetable soup and SpaghettiO’s will be labeled as containing GMOs but vegetable soup with chicken and SpaghettiO’s with meatballs will not. Industry representatives frequently argue that a state by state approach to GMO labeling leads to an untenable patchwork quilt of differing regulations and requirements.  Vermont's law goes one step further by creating an illogical intrastate patch work, with little rhyme or reason why some products containing GMOs are labeled and others are not.

Hopefully, Congress will save Vermont from itself and adopt legislation in the near future directing USDA to establish national GMO disclosure standards that make sense and truly provide interested consumers with accurate, worthwhile information.  If such an agreement isn’t reached, Vermonters will be left with a law that requires the disclosure of information that is as reliable as a coin flip.