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Why Vermont's GMO Law Might Not Last Long

A federal bill could make the law short-lived

Starting today, grocery shoppers in Vermont will know whether their food contains genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). A mandate that passed more than two years ago officially goes into effect Friday, and requires that packaged grocery products, whole fruits, and vegetables produced using genetic engineering are labeled as such.

Though some companies have made moves to comply with the bill (Campbell's, for instance, supports GMO-labeling) others may simply pull their products from Vermont shelves. A spokesman for Coca-Cola tells Eater that some of the company's lower-volume brands may be be temporarily unavailable in Vermont as a result of the mandate. The most popular beverages — Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and Coke Zero — will continue to be widely available.

"The Coca-Cola Company continues to support efforts in Congress to pass a national set of labeling standards for products containing GMOs," says Coca-Cola's Ben Sheidler. Until Congress adopts the best uniform approach for consumers, we will continue to comply with all applicable labeling requirements."

Zen Honeycutt, founder of Moms Across America, says her group is so happy with the Vermont law that they'll be marching in a parade in Montpelier this weekend, carrying a banner proclaiming, "Thank you Vermont, for labeling GMOs!"

She compares the fight for GMO labeling to the fight to require car-makers to install seat belts. "That's how the seatbelt laws started — activists in those states wanted to protect their family members, so they pushed for seatbelt laws in their states and eventually pushed it federally," she says. "Without the ability for states to push through laws like this, democracy is essentially destroyed."

Last week, two senators introduced a federal bill that would supersede the Vermont mandate, though it still has to go through the House and be signed by President Obama. That piece of legislation — dubbed the Roberts-Stabenow bill for the two Senators who authored it — would be much more lenient than Vermont's law. Instead of requiring companies to include on-pack labeling, the bill would allow companies to select almost any method to disclose the use of GMOs in a product — including pringint a QR code, 800-number, or website on the package, with no further information on the label itself.

Honeycutt says the bill would do far more than eliminate Vermont's GMO labeling law. "It would destroy state rights," she says. "And, frankly, putting four words on a product — 'Produced with genetic materials' — is much less complicated than adding a QR code."

The Roberts-Stabenow bill was lauded by many in agricultural industries, but slammed by proponents of Vermont's bill, who argued it didn't go far enough. As the New York Times reports, it also faces opposition from the Food and Drug Administration. The agency recently sent a three-page letter detailing shortcomings it has found in the revised bill.

"Among other things, the F.D.A. criticizes the proposed law for assigning regulatory responsibility for G.M.O. labeling to the Department of Agriculture, which traditionally weighs in only on the labeling of meats and eggs," reports the Times. The agency added that the definition of "bioengineering" in the bill is so narrow that it would not apply to many foods that come from genetically engineered sources.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called his state's mandate "a triumph." He's vowed to defeat the Roberts-Stabenow bill, issuing a statement this week that he will put a hold on the legislation.

"The agreement announced by Sens. Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow would create a confusing, misleading and unenforceable national standard for labeling GMOs," he said. "It would impose no penalties for violating the labeling requirement, making the law essentially meaningless. This isn't controversial. The overwhelming majority of Americans favor GMO labeling. People have a right to know what is in the food they eat."