GMO Labeling Appears Certain in Vermont

Beginning July 1, 2016, Vermont will become the first state in the U.S. to require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO). Act 120 became law back on May 8, 2014. Since then, concerns have surfaced regarding the potential for a patchwork of different state labeling laws and the resulting complexity and cost ramifications for food companies.  Attempts to pass a federal standard have not been successful to date, and without further Congressional action, it's now clear that federal legislation will not be in place in time to prevent Vermont Act 120 from becoming law.

Under the Vermont law, a mandatory label is required for any food produced by genetic engineering (GE) techniques or containing any GE ingredients. GE is more commonly called "genetic modification," and so a GE food is widely referred to as a "genetically modified organism" or "GMO."  Penalties for non-compliance are $1,000 a day for each product not properly labeled. However, the law includes exemptions for foods containing total GMO components totaling less than 0.9% of the product, and there is a six-month grace period for goods already on the shelf on the effective date.  Specific labeling requirements, such as how foods must be labeled and under what circumstances, are covered in Vermont's GMO rules available at http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/2014/Acts/ACT120.pdf.

This present situation leaves organizations that sell or distribute food products in Vermont in a precarious position. Do they create special labels, or label stickers, for products sold in Vermont? Can they work up and down through supply chains with sufficient controls to determine exactly which of their products may end up on Vermont store shelves? These are decisions that each business must make for itself, based upon its own circumstances.

Several trade organizations including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Snacking.Nutrition.Convenience International (SNAC) and National Coffee Association (NCA) have provided guidance on how to comply and have also lobbied the federal government to pass a national standard.

Political Climate

The federal Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 was designed to set a national standard of voluntary labeling for GMO foods, and included a preemption clause for conflicting state laws. The bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in August 2015, but failed to achieve the 60 votes needed to move it to the Senate floor for a vote.

More recently, an alternative federal bill, the Biotechnology Food Labeling and Uniformity Act of 2016, was introduced in the House. The bill would require disclosure of the presence of GMOs in the product's nutritional fact box. However, with the fall election cycle upon us, it remains to be seen whether legislators will be able to take any further action on either bill.

Currently, GMO foods are freely sold in the U.S., with some companies participating in voluntary certification. There is also non-binding guidance available on GMO labeling from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Labeling laws have also passed in Connecticut and Maine, but are written so that they won't go into effect until a certain number of surrounding states have enacted similar laws.