Gov. Peter Shumlin at the GMO bill signing ceremony in 2014.
With the flick of a presidential pen late Friday afternoon, Vermont’s GMO labeling law suffered an early demise. Less than a month after the state law took effect, a newer and less aggressive federal law nullified it.
What does it all mean? To begin with, store owners and food manufacturers who scurried to make sure that foods containing genetically modified organisms were labeled can chill.
But they might not want to toss those labels just yet. Several organizations that
helped get Vermont’s law passed are considering challenging the federal statute in court.
“VPIRG and a number of organizations around the country are looking at what options we have,” said Falko Schilling, consumer and environmental advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, said her organization is part of those talks. “More specifics will likely emerge in the next few weeks,” she said.
Stander said she is particularly concerned that the federal law also nullifies Vermont’s 2004 law that requires genetically modified seeds to be labeled. It’s unclear whether GMO seeds must be labeled under the federal standard.
Attorney General Bill Sorrell said his office looked into suing the federal government to protect the state’s GMO labeling law, but opted against it. His office spent the last two years creating rules and answering manufacturers’ questions about a law that lasted just 29 days. “It’s a very bitter pill,” he said of the law’s nullification.
President Barack Obama signed on Friday the new federal labeling law that immediately preempted Vermont’s first-in-the-nation law. Advocates of GMO labeling consider the federal regulation, which allows authorities two years to come up with rules surrounding labeling, far weaker than Vermont’s.
Vermont’s law required many products containing genetically modified ingredients to carry a label saying so. The federal law allows manufacturers to convey that information through a smartphone scan code. “It’s really a sham,” Schilling said.
Schilling said that even if organizations such as VPIRG decide against suing over the law, they may launch an effort to encourage manufacturers to continue labeling.
Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, said he expects many will continue labeling. But store owners are breathing a sigh of relief, he said, as the labeling of goods such as store-made potato salad or muffins was proving confusing. “In-store stuff was really problematic,” he said.
Harrison, who spent much of the last year helping members get ready for the new law, doesn’t consider it wasted time. “I’m not here to argue if it was right or wrong,” he said. If Vermont had not passed its law, Harrison thinks Congress would not have passed the new federal law.
Schilling is convinced that as short-lived as Vermont’s law was, passing it was the right thing to do. “A lot more people know what’s in their food because of what we did here in Vermont.”