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The Bill Lives

Side Dishes: Vermont's ag committee to continue debating GMO labeling


Published March 21, 2012 at 5:38 a.m.

A bold bill that would require any food containing genetically modified ingredients to carry a special label in Vermont has had its committee vote postponed for at least two more weeks, buoying the hopes of supporters who feared it would wither before reaching the Senate.

Last Friday was the legislative crossover deadline for bills to be voted out of committee and continue their progress toward becoming law. After hearing nearly three days of testimony and fielding public calls and letters, members of Vermont’s agriculture committee got the green light from the Joint Rules Committee to continue hearing testimony on bill H.722.

“I think this was a wise move. There are several pending questions that need to be answered before the bill moves to the Senate,” writes the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne), in an email. “One possibility is to add a condition that another state pass similar legislation so that Vermont does not have to go it alone. The state needs to have some reasonable assurance that this law could hold up to probable litigation. Most importantly, this keeps the bill alive.”

GMO labeling initiatives are also under way in California, Connecticut, Minnesota and a handful of other states.

Last week, the committee heard testimony from the measure’s proponents, including Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Organic and current crusader for GMO labeling. Among those voicing countervailing concerns was Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers’ Association.

“We’re not passing judgment on whether this would be good information for the consumer,” Harrison says. But because labels are federally regulated, he notes, a state-level labeling law could prove a burden to retailers and producers. “We have a growing number of specialty-food producers in Vermont,” he says, “yet those are the folks who would be most dramatically impacted.”

Supporters, such as Rural Vermont director Andrea Stander, hope the bill will continue its march toward law.

“It was really touch and go until lunchtime on Friday,” Stander says. Rural Vermont was one of the bill’s original coauthors, along with the Northeast Organic Farming Association and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “I think what made the difference more than anything was that it was clear that there is a huge amount of public support for this,” Stander continues. “In the face of that, the leadership was persuaded that it needs more time.”

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