(NECN: Jack Thurston, Montpelier, Vt.) - A group of companies from Vermont's food industry called on the Vt. State Senate Wednesday to pass legislation requiring food labels that will let people know if they're eating genetically-modified organisms or GMOs. The issue is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee, after having been advanced by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Last year, the Vt. House of Representatives passed a bill requiring GMO labeling by July, 2015.
"I think consumers want to know where their food comes from and what's in that food," said Chris Miller, the activism manager for the iconic ice cream brand Ben & Jerry's, which has pledged to have all its pints labeled as GMO-free by mid-2014. "Vermonters want to shop their values. And it's only through a label that will allow Vermonters to be able to do that."
Most of the processed food sold in the center aisles of grocery stores contains ingredients like corn or soybeans that had their DNA modified to enhance crop yield. Many large-scale farmers call biotechnology a boon, and government regulators have said it has been a part of our food system for two decades, presenting no known food safety issues. However, critics and a growing number of consumers remain deeply skeptical and want transparency.
Maine and Connecticut have already passed laws that would mandate GMO labeling, but they're delaying implementation until other states sign on. Vermont's proposed bill does not wait for other states. Attorney General Bill Sorrell, D-Vt., warned lawmakers this month that the state would likely be sued by major food producers if it required labels. Sorrell said manufacturers could claim their free speech rights were being violated by a state mandate on food labeling.
"We've drafted language that is constitutionally defendable," said Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden County, one of the bill's biggest champions in the Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee must now decide if the bill needs extra protections such as a legal defense fund or a clause that waits for bigger states to join, said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, the committee's chairman. "Personally, I support the bill. I support the concept," Sears told New England Cable News. "My concern is the taxpayers of Vermont and the potential $5-10-million lawsuit."
The Vermont Grocers' Association said it doesn't have a position on whether or not food should be labeled, but insisted the issue should be a national one left to regulatory agencies. "Patchwork is not the right way to go," said executive director Jim Harrison. "Uniform national labeling is the much more preferable way to go."
Sen. Sears said he expects his Judiciary Committee to act early next month.