The Senate failed to advance legislation ahead of its April recess to apply a uniform food labeling standard for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Now, food companies are being forced to make major decisions on how to comply with Vermont’s labeling law, which goes into effect July 1. And the confusion in the marketplace continues to show the need for uniformity among labels.
Three states have passed GMO labeling laws — Vermont, Connecticut and Maine — and 20 other state legislatures are considering their own labeling bills. Vermont’s law will be the first to be enforced this July.
A closer look at just these three laws demonstrates the confusion that awaits farmers, manufacturers, retailers and shoppers trying to navigate a state-by-state patchwork approach to food labeling, the Safe Affordable Food Coalition warned.
For example, the three states have unique exemptions. Vermont’s law includes language requiring the state’s attorney general to produce a report determining whether milk and milk products should be labeled, while Maine and Connecticut’s laws are silent on that point. Connecticut and Vermont include exemptions for processing aids used in cheese-making and maple syrup production; Maine does not. Dietary supplements are exempt from the Vermont law, but not in Connecticut and Maine.
The three states use different definitions. They even define “food” differently. Vermont defines food as intended for human consumption, while Connecticut includes such items as chewing gum. Maine’s law includes a definition only for medical food.
The states also take unique approaches to how food should be labeled. Vermont’s law includes requirements for three different labels: “produced with genetic engineering,” “partially produced with genetic engineering” and “may be produced with genetic engineering.” Maine and Connecticut only have one label: “produced with genetic engineering.”
Vermont, Maine and Connecticut show the inherent problems with a state-by-state approach to food labeling.
“Consumers will be left confused, not informed, while the struggle for farmers and manufacturers to comply with these different laws will inevitably raise the price of food,” the coalition said.
Stalled in Senate
During the month of March significant progress had been made on trying to reach a solution that could obtain the votes needed to pass in the Senate, however in the end it wasn’t enough.
The Senate voted on March 16 by a vote of 48-49 to invoke cloture on a compromise labeling bill by Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.); it would have allowed for full debate on the bill if 60 votes had been in favor. His bill would direct USDA to set up nationwide standards for voluntary disclosure of biotech ingredients. Those nationwide standards would pre-empt biotech labeling laws at the state and local levels, including Vermont’s law.
Roberts had touted the fact that nearly 800 groups had voiced support for his bill — more than any other bill passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee. However, consumer and organic groups have coined it as the Senate version of the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act.
Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), says although the vote's outcome is a disappointment, it is not a defeat.
“We believe a bipartisan federal policy is within reach, based on discussions with Senate offices in the last few days,” he says, following the vote. “We are committed to working to bridge differences and get a compromise agreement through the Senate.”
Kellogg North American president Paul Norman notes that Kellogg’s “will continue to strongly urge Congress to pass a uniform, federal solution for the labeling of GMOs. In fact, we believe an agreement on one is achievable.”
Companies forced to label
Days after the unsuccessful vote, announcements have come from Kellogg’s, General Mills, ConAgra and Mars that they will begin labeling their products nationwide in order to comply with Vermont’s law.
All Mars U.S. human food products that contain GMO ingredients will be labeled as such. As provided for in the Vermont law, relevant products will include a label stating “produced with genetic engineering” or “partially produced with genetic engineering.” Currently, the wording is on the back of the package, alongside ingredients, says Jonathan Mudd, global director of media relations for Mars.
Jeff Harmening, executive vice president and chief operating officer for U.S. retail at General Mills, says, “We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers, and we simply will not do that. The result: Consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products."
In a statement, Kellogg’s Norman says the company will begin to start labeling some of its products nationwide for the presence of GMOs beginning in mid- to late-April. “We chose nationwide labeling because a special label for Vermont would be logistically unmanageable and even more costly for us and consumers,” he says.
The food industry and the broad Safe Affordable Food Coalition has been asking the Senate to step up to help pass voluntary, uniform and science-based standards for GMO food labeling ahead of the Senate recess in April. “What has happened in the time since the Senate blocked the vote is what should have been expected: Companies are making decisions on what they have to do,” explained Roger Lowe, executive vice president of strategic communications at the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).
These food companies, which include some of the largest ones nationally, felt that they could not risk the fine of $1,000 per day per SKU for an improperly labeled item, Lowe says.
He added that there could be long-term repercussions if consumers start to stigmatize those products with a label, and companies face a real risk of having to reformulate to not use GMO ingredients.
Lowe said a lawsuit challenging Vermont’s law is in the federal court of appeals. “The best and most realistic option to have an action that stops Vermont law is through congressional action,” he says.