Vermont Senators on Wednesday voted 26 to 2 to approve a bill that would make Vermont the first state to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms, affirming the bill's passage by the state's House nearly a year ago.
The bill, which requires labeling of all foods for retail sale in Vermont as "produced with genetic engineering," also prohibits GM foods from being labeled as "natural," or including any related phrase thereof.
It does not impact foods sold in restaurants, and exempts some foods made with processing aids or enzymes and products entirely derived from animals not produced with genetic engineering, regardless if the animal ingested GM feed.
"Today the Senate stood up for the vast majority of Vermonters who want to see genetically engineered foods labeled," said Falko Schilling, representative of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a supporter of labeling. "Vermont is once again leading the nation by acknowledging the important fact that everyone has a right to know what they are eating."
If House members approve the Senators' changes and it receives Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin's signature, the bill will take effect July 1, 2016.
Action ahead, but lawsuits lurk
Unlike laws recently passed in Maine and Connecticut, the Senate version of the new law does not require a enactment of GMO labeling laws in other states before it takes effect.
Vermont Senate Judiciary committee chairman Dick Sears told Vermont Public Radio that relying on other states to trigger the labeling law was not in the best interest of the state, and he's not concerned about lawsuits challenging the bill.
"We felt that the bill that we're representing today to the Vermont Senate is defensible, number one," Sears said. "Number two, we felt that a trigger of some future date and relying on other states was not in our best interest – that it was in our best interest to go forward and hope that other states would follow Vermont."
While labeling supporters say the bill provides consumers with information about exactly what's in their food and "eliminates confusion, others say it actually creates confusion.
"This is a misinformation that the public has had. Even at our public hearing we heard from people who were making statements that even we knew were incorrect," Sen. Norm McAllister told VPR. "It was a scare tactic as far as I'm concerned – and that's why I don't support it."
McAllister, a Republican representing Highgate, and a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, was one of the two dissenting votes.
A national conversation
The Vermont Senate vote comes as Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., just one week ago revealed language for a national bill to clarify jurisdiction in labeling foods made with GMOs. Pompeo's bill suggests that the Food and Drug Administration test each GM product before it is available commercially, and label only those products which may cause an allergic reaction or other adverse effect.
In addition, Pompeo's bill proposes to eliminate statewide labeling bills like Vermont's, which plan to affix mandatory affirmative GMO labels, favoring instead a voluntary labeling framework.
Current federal law does not require labeling, and the Food and Drug Administration does not label foods made with GMOs because they are not considered "materially different" from conventional foods.