As we reported last week, the Senate defeated a bill that would have made the labeling of genetically modified products optional for food companies while nullifying state laws regulating GMO transparency. Had it passed, the so-called Denying Americans the Right to Know, or “DARK.” Act would have been a huge win for biotech companies like Monsanto and large food companies that have for years resisted mandatory labeling of GMOs.
With industry-supported federal action off the table for now, it appears Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling bill will go into effect July 1 as planned. In 2014, the Green Mountain State passed the country’s strictest GMO labeling bill, requiring that all genetically engineered products sold in the state say so on their labels by this July.
“Vermonters have long supported labeling, our fellow Americans agree, and Congress should do the same,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., this week. “We in Vermont are proud that our state's law has been the catalyst that is moving us toward a uniform national standard.”
Almost immediately after the Vermont bill passed, the state was sued by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry trade group claiming that the law violated its first amendment rights and disrupted interstate commerce. You see, despite Vermont’s population of just 600,000—a small market for most food companies—its labeling law will effectively force companies to label their products in all states. Because of the way supply chains work, companies cannot afford to simply change the labels for products going to just one state.
This fact—along with the realization that the federal efforts were always an uphill battle—has led some companies to announce that they will begin labeling all their products that contain engineered ingredients. In January, Campbell Soup became the first large food company to announce it would label all its foods containing GMOs with the following label: “Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about G.M.O. ingredients, visit WhatsinMyFood.com.”
Cereal maker General Mills, of Cheerios and Lucky Charms fame, was next to jump on the labeling bandwagon, followed by Mars yesterday. Expect other companies to follow suit in the coming months leading up to the Vermont labeling law rollout—or face stiff fines for non-compliance.
Stonyfield Organic CEO Gary Hirschberg, who chairs the Just Label It campaign, sent a note to labeling advocates Monday saying that these developments prove that “Congress and corporate giants have heard your voice and they are listening.” According to a recent survey by the campaign, nearly 9 out of 10 Americans say they want to know whether a food product contains genetically modified ingredients. The massive consumer movement for food transparency and safety has also created an environment where clean food companies can succeed, as evidenced by the growth of Thrive Market—the largest retailer in the country offering only non-GMO foods.
Hirschberg warns, however, not to expect the industry to let up on efforts to pass a weak national labeling law, writing that “no one should be lulled” by the failure of the Roberts bill or the companies committing to labeling their products. Hirschberg expects Congress to try to pass a compromise labeling bill when it reconvenes in early April and will travel to Washington DC to meet with the Democratic lawmakers about including mandatory labeling provisions in any new law that is passed.
“So, the battle is on, and this time it will all come down to April,” Hirschberg wrote. “But in this 11th hour, we must prevail if we are to consolidate our wins to-date and secure the path to federal mandatory labeling. And that means we need to pull out every stop to meet and persuade every Senator to ensure consumers' basic rights to know and choose.”
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