Uncertainties Loom as Vermont GMO Law Takes Effect

Stores are relying on national food companies to apply labels

At Mehuron's Supermarket in Waitsfield, Vermont, manager Bruce Hyde Jr. said he and his team support and are ready for the state's new law requiring genetically modified foods to be labeled as such. But uncertainties abound.

Mehuron's and other markets around the state have signs ready for bins containing bulk items notifying consumers whether they contain, may contain or do not contain genetically modified ingredients. Vermont's law takes effect Friday.

One source of uncertainty, Hyde said, was that stores like his have to rely on national food companies to apply labels to products with genetically modified ingredients.

But Congress could act next week on a less stringent federal bill that would pre-empt Vermont's.

"It could all be changed a month from now," Hyde said.

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and other state leaders have strongly supported Vermont's labeling law, saying consumers have a right to know what's in their food. They planned a noontime celebration of the law Friday.

Food producers argue there's no science supporting any difference between foods that are genetically modified and those that are not. They also say they don't want to end up with a patchwork of multiple state regulatory schemes.

Industry groups including the Grocery Manufacturers Association have sued to block the Vermont law, arguing that the labeling requirement amounts to compelled speech in violation of the First Amendment. The litigation is pending in federal court.

GMA spokesman Roger Lowe said the group hopes Congress acts quickly on compromise legislation offered last week by Republican and Democratic leaders on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"Since the state of Vermont has given companies 30 days to correct any alleged GMO labeling violations, the immediate impact, if any, on companies in July should be limited," Lowe said.

He added, "If companies know that Congress intends to enact a federal law that pre-empts the Vermont law and prevents other state laws on GMO labeling, they may be able to hold off long-term decisions on product reformulations."

Larger grocers as well as national food companies like General Mills and Campbell's Soup say they're ready for the law that was passed in 2014 with a two-year window for companies to prepare.

Campbell's has "already printed and shipped (product labeled) to comply with Vermont's law," said company spokesman Thomas Hushen. The company remains "committed to label on-package" throughout the country.

Coca-Cola spokesman Ben Sheidler said the company was making a "good-faith effort" to comply with the law, but also said some lower-volume products and packages "could be temporarily unavailable in Vermont."

Maine-based regional chain Hannaford Supermarkets is ready with new labels for any of the store-brand products it carries that contain genetically modified ingredients. Those labels would not just be going to Vermont, but would be sent throughout Hannaford's distribution system, said spokesman Eric Blom.

At the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, which specializes in natural foods and local products, general manager Kari Bradley called it "frustrating" that a state law the co-op has supported since it was before lawmakers in Montpelier might be erased from the books by federal action.

Bradley said leaders of other food co-ops around the country had cheered Vermont on. "They just don't have the political climates in their states to move this forward."

He said the federal bill, which would allow food producers to use coded labels readable by smartphones, is "not a solution that's in the spirit of the Vermont law."

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