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State-Mandated GMO Labeling – Let Freedom Ring?


State-Mandated GMO Labeling – Let Freedom Ring?

As the U.S. went into a historic holiday over the weekend to celebrate its freedoms, the July 1 effective date of Vermont's GMO labeling law brought questions of the nation's freedoms to a completely different – and very personal level.


Does America's freedom mean that each of the 50 states can implement food labeling laws to fulfill consumers' right to know what is in the food they eat? Or does such state-mandated GMO labeling amount to "compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment" as is being put forth by industry groups suing to block the Vermont law? And do consumers really understand the freedoms they stand to gain –and lose – through such laws?


The fight isn't new, of course. Since Vermont citizens passed the GMO labeling law in May 2014, there has been controversy over the state mandate. But, even while most of the major food companies have preparing for the law's enactment, many thought – or hoped – it would be knocked down before it could become law.  


It came close – with the Senate introducing and voting 68-29 last week to move forward with bipartisan legislation that would create a national GMO labeling law and pre-empt that of Vermont or any other state legislation. While mandating GMO disclosure, the legislation would not require specific labeling/wording, but would enable options such as that of a symbol or web link on the label; would allow small companies to simply list a phone number or website; and would exempt very small manufacturers, restaurants, and some meat and dairy products.


As was expected, the Senate began the process of invoking cloture on Wednesday, resulting in a 65-32 procedural vote, which, according to the New York Times "is now widely expected to get final approval in the Senate as early as this week." But the vote was not without theatrics or controversy, with money being thrown onto the Senate floor from anti-Monsanto protestors in the gallery rallying against senators for taking money from Monsanto. 


However, because the vote did not occur before July 1, Vermont's law went into effect, and the consequences and uncertainties of the legislation to begin to appear.

One of the first was the pre-July 1st announcement by Coca Cola that it would stop selling some of its lower volume products in the state, at least temporarily, due to the mandated state-specific labeling. And just this week, word came out that suppliers for the grocery chain Price Chopper will stop sending 3,000 products to its Vermont stores "from Cadbury chocolates to Entenmann’s donuts to Pepsi products, because companies don’t want to pay the added cost of labeling the foods." Additionally, because retailers who make food (i.e., in the deli) must identify and label any GM ingredients, the law is causing these retailers – large or small – to implement new practices, policies, and, in some cases, equipment. All of which is likely to also increase prices for Vermont shoppers.


Whether or not Vermont voters realized the full extent of the impact of their vote, it is moving forward and set for enforcement in 2017…


Unless, of course, it is pre-empted by a new national law, or a court ruling deems it unenforceable before then. However, even should the Senate legislation pass, it then has to pass the House of Representatives; and with Congress leaving for its summer recess in mid-July, there is not a lot of time for the bill to become law. 


So Vermont's GMO labeling is law, but just how long it will stand and how much freedom it grants or takes away is certain to remain contentious no matter which side of the state line you stand on.


About The Acheson Group (TAG)

Led by Former FDA Associate Commissioner for Foods Dr. David Acheson, TAG is a food safety consulting group that provides guidance and expertise worldwide for companies throughout the food supply chain. With in-depth industry knowledge combined with real-world experience, TAG's team of food safety experts help companies more effectively mitigate risk, improve operational efficiencies, and ensure regulatory and standards compliance. www.AchesonGroup.com

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