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Reading the Tea Leaves in Vermont

May 8th, 2014
By Colin O'Neil, Director of Government Affairs, Center for Food Safety
Center for Food Safety

Victory in Vermont Leads Nation toward GE Labeling

Today, the people of Vermont have won a hard fought victory for the right to know if their food has been produced through genetic engineering. Governor Shumlin signed the first no strings attached law to require labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods, which will go into effect July 1, 2016.

This news has set off a firestorm of commentary from both the pro-labeling and anti-labeling camps. With the GE labeling movement building momentum across the country, many are wondering what happens next.

The State of Labeling Across the Country

Unlike other state labeling laws, the Vermont labeling bill is the first bill that will go into effect regardless of actions by other states. Previous GE labeling bills passed in Connecticut and Maine have required that a certain number of nearby states enact similar legislation before they would take effect. Now that it has been signed into law, Vermont’s mandatory labeling policy will likely set the stage for more states to introduce and adopt no strings attached labeling laws.

So far, 34 state GE labeling bills have been introduced in 2014. New York’s GE labeling bill recently advanced through the Assembly’s Committee on Consumer Affairs and Protection and bills in both Massachusetts and California continue to progress.

The labeling fight at the state level is not just happening in the legislature. Oregon is preparing to vote on a ballot measure for GE labeling this fall, which is being led by the non-partisan grassroots campaign Oregon Right to Know. If past labeling initiatives in California and Washington State are any indicator, anti-labeling companies like Monsanto, Dow and the members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association will likely pour in many millions of dollars to oppose the Oregon ballot initiative.

Labeling in the Nation’s Capital

Passage of Vermont’s labeling bill will likely put additional pressure on Members of Congress to stake out a position on the issue. Last year, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act (H.R. 1699/S. 809) that would require nationwide labeling of GE products.

A few weeks ago, Members of the Connecticut delegation, led by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Senator Richard Blumenthal, gathered on Capitol Hill to honor Connecticut State Senator Donald E. Williams, Jr., who championed Connecticut’s GE labeling law. The Members also used the time to showcase the Boxer-DeFazio legislation and urged their fellow lawmakers to heed the call for labeling coming from the states. The bills currently have 71 cosponsors in the House and Senate, but it is not the only piece of legislation being discussed in D.C.

In an attempt to blunt momentum for labeling at the state level, Congressman Mike Pompeo (R-KS), with help from the Grocery Manufactures Association, introduced a bill earlier this month to block any federal or state action to require the labeling of GE foods. The bill, which has been dubbed the “Denying Americans the Right-to-Know” (DARK) Act, goes beyond just preempting states from requiring labeling by codifying a long-failed voluntary GE labeling system, creating a pathway to allow foods branded as “natural” to contain GE and other un-natural ingredients, as well as permitting meat, milk, and eggs raised from animals fed GE-feed to be labeled as “non-GMO.” The DARK Act currently has 4 co-sponsors.

As momentum on Capitol Hill builds, Center for Food Safety (CFS), along with Consumers Union, Environmental Working Group and the members of the Just Label It Coalition, continue to put pressure on President Obama and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to adopt a federal mandatory labeling standard. In October 2011, CFS filed a formal legal petition with the FDA on behalf of over 650 organizations and businesses to require the labeling of GE foods. 

Since that time, over 1.4 million people have submitted comments to FDA in support of the legal petition. Earlier this year 200 companies and organizations sent a letter to President Obama urging him to honor his 2007 campaign pledge to require GE labeling. While no one expects the Administration to lift its radio silence on this issue immediately, they are undoubtedly keeping a very close eye on the labeling movement across the country and will be closely following any potential legal challenge by industry of Vermont’s labeling law.

How to support mandatory GE labeling

If you are interested in helping to advance GE labeling around the country, here is a list of resources and opportunities for you to take advantage of:

Tell your representative to support the Boxer/DeFazio Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act and oppose the DARK Act.

Find out if a GE labeling bill has been introduced in your state so you can support it.

Download our Citizen Lobbyist packet to learn how to set up meetings with your state legislators and advocate for GE labeling.

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