By Hilary Niles
Vermont lawmakers are poised to “boldly go where no other state has gone before,” Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said Thursday before casting his vote for an unprecedented food-labeling law.
The Senate Judiciary Committee gave H.112 unanimous approval Thursday. The bill would require the labeling of food made with genetically modified ingredients sold in Vermont.
Vermont will not wait for more states to adopt similar laws before it moves ahead with GMO labeling.
Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that included a trigger based on other states’ adoption of labeling provisions. Vermont lawmakers emulated Connecticut’s and Maine’s legislation, but did not include a trigger in H.112.
Voter referendums for GMO labeling mandates failed in California and Washington in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Other states, including New Hampshire and New York, are considering their own standards.
As drafted, Vermont’s bill would apply to all food and drink sold in the state, except meat, milk and food sold in restaurants. After much discussion, committee members agreed it should also apply to chewing gum — but not chewing tobacco.
Lawmakers also agreed to establish a fund to cover the costs of implementing the law, including any legal challenge it might face.
Sears said he absolutely expects a lawsuit — which is why establishing a funding mechanism to pay for litigation is so important in his view.
Benning also anticipates a lawsuit.
“I want to make it very clear I’m not voting for this bill because I have some passionate desire to slap Monsanto,” Benning said. “This is, in my eyes, a simple request that I have the right to know what’s in my product when I buy it. No more, no less.”
The legislation previously won the support of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. It heads next to Appropriations before it goes to the Senate floor. Should it pass there, a conference committee would be needed to reconcile the bill with the version that passed the House in 2013.
If it becomes law, the Attorney General’s Office would begin rule-making immediately. Labeling requirements would take effect July 2016.
Vermont food producers
Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, thinks the delayed effective date will give food producers and retailers time to comply.
Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers’ Association, said the law would pose a problem for the state’s food producers regardless of timing. He said the fundamental challenge is a lack of uniformity with national standards.
Harrison said his organization does not hold a position on labeling. Grocers want to see a unified national approach that will be easier for U.S. producers to implement that would level the field of competition.
The dairy exemption
Sears and Benning both expressed serious reservations about the exemption for milk.
Often referred to as a “dairy” exemption, the provision is narrowly written. Only fluid milk would be exempt; dairy products such as yogurt or ice cream would have to be labeled if any of their non-milk ingredients contain GMOs.
The exemption is based on a lack of traceable GMO material in milk produced from cows that have consumed GMO corn, according to recent testimony by representatives from the Vermont Law School.
“Unless you’re changing the definition of genetically engineered, this bill won’t reach milk,” said Dave Rogers, policy adviser for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. He said the bottom line concern for GMO labeling advocates is genetically modified products.
Still, Sears and Benning worry about equal treatment under the law.
Food producers who are subject to the labeling law may cry foul if others are exempt, Benning said. Sears has worried out loud about a perception of favorable treatment for dairy producers in a state dominated by dairy agriculture.
They agreed to a study of the dairy exemption by the attorney general.
If the state law is litigated before Jan. 15, 2015, when the report is due, lawmakers said they would grant an indefinite extension for the study.
Special fund for litigation
Some committee members expressed reservations about the special fund for litigation, but none were concerned enough to let it affect their votes.
While no longer technically called a legal defense fund, that terminology has been used recently in the bill’s debate. Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, says it sets a precedent.
She worried that it sends a signal that Vermont state government is willing to go out on a limb for monied interests.
Ashe tried in vain to establish a more general litigation fund, unattached to any particular issue such as GMO labeling.
“Isn’t that the attorney general’s budget?” White responded. She said the potential for litigation from the GMO labeling law should be handled like any other state law the attorney general steps up to defend.
Sears was adamant about setting the money aside, however.
The special fund, which is designed to cover administrative costs, will receive money from any court settlements beyond what is already forecast for fiscal year 2015.
Tobacco, Medicaid and other settlement money that is earmarked will not be touched. But if more money than expected is to flow to the General Fund, it would go to the new GMO labeling special fund, instead.
Vermonters and supporters outside the state will be allowed to contribute to the cause. Sears said he has heard from many of the bill’s supporters who have said they would be happy to donate to the litigation fund.