MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press January 13, 2015 Full Article
A large majority of Americans support labeling of genetically modified foods, whether they care about eating them or not.
According to a December Associated Press-GfK poll, 66 percent of Americans favor requiring food manufacturers to put labels on products that contain genetically modified organisms, or foods grown from seeds engineered in labs. Only 7 percent are opposed to the idea, and 24 percent are neutral.
Fewer Americans say genetically modified ingredients are important to them when judging whether a food is healthy. About 4 in 10 said the presence of such ingredients was very or extremely important to them.
That’s higher than the share who say it’s important to know whether a food is organic, and about on par with the share saying they consider the amount of protein in a food an important factor.
For some, the debate over GMOs is about the food system overall. Andrew Chan of Seattle said he strongly favors labeling genetically modified ingredients, but those ingredients themselves aren’t most important to him. As a parent, he said his top concern is the abundance of processed foods.
“GMO ingredients aren’t the number one thing, but more than likely within a processed food I’d find something that is a genetically modified product,” said Chan, 41.
Genetically modified seeds are engineered to have certain traits, such as resistance to herbicides or certain plant diseases. Most of the country’s corn and soybean crop is now genetically modified, with much of that becoming animal feed. Modified corn and soybeans are also made into popular processed food ingredients such as corn oil, corn starch, high-fructose corn syrup and soybean oil.
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require labeling of genetically modified foods, saying those on the market are safe. Consumer advocates backing labeling say shoppers have a right to know what is in their food, arguing not enough is known about their effects.
The AP-GfK poll comes as several states have weighed in on the issue. Vermont became the first state to require labels for genetically modified foods last year, passing a law in May that will take effect mid-2016 if it survives legal challenges. Maine and Connecticut passed laws before Vermont, but those measures don’t take effect unless neighboring states follow suit. Ballot initiatives to require labeling were narrowly defeated in California, Washington and Oregon in recent years.
The food industry and seed companies have aggressively fought attempts to force labeling, and have pushed a bill in Congress that would block those efforts. The bill by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, would reaffirm that such food labels are voluntary, overriding any state laws that require them.
In a December congressional hearing on the issue, members of both parties were less inclined than the public to support labeling. Many questioned whether mandatory GMO labels would be misleading to consumers since there is little scientific evidence that such foods are unsafe.
According to the AP-GfK poll, public support for labeling GMOs was bipartisan, with 71 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans favoring labeling. Even among conservative Republicans, more than 6 in 10 favor a labeling requirement.
Jay Jaffe, a Republican from Philadelphia, says he strongly favors labeling even though he has no problem buying GMOs. “If they are cheaper and they taste right to me, I’ll buy it,” he says.
Still, he thinks there should be accountability in the food industry. “It should be there and not in small print,” he said of GMO labels. “People should be able to make a choice.”
Lucinda Morel, an independent who leans Democratic from Los Angeles, says she is very conscious of ingredients as a mother of three young children. She strongly favors labeling GMO foods.
Morel said she is concerned that so many foods have become modified “before we can see any ramifications or any fallout, if there is any, from making such changes so quickly.”
The food industry has faced pressure from retailers as consumer awareness of GMOs has increased. The retailer Whole Foods plans to label GMO products in all its U.S. and Canadian stores by 2018. And some companies have decided to remove the ingredients altogether.
National food groups are suing the state of Vermont over the labeling of genetically engineered foods. The state passed legislation to label every food product that has GMOs, but Wednesday the law faced its first legal challenge.
The hearing is not the start of the trial. It’s a chance for supporters of GMO labeling to try to get the case thrown out and opponents to stall the labeling of genetically engineered foods.
National food manufacturers are suing the Green Mountain State, arguing Vermont’s new GMO labeling law is unconstitutional. Opponents say the labels would violate First Amendment free speech rights. And they argue the state of Vermont has no authority to order GMO labeling while the Food and Drug Administration does not require genetically engineered foods be labeled.
Attorneys for the food associations declined to comment on camera about the case but sent a statement to WCAX saying: “The U.S. Constitution prohibits Vermont from regulating nationwide distribution and labeling practices that facilitate interstate commerce. That is the sole province of the federal government.”
Another argument some in the food industry have made is that GMO labels could wrongly imply foods are unsafe.
But state officials say they are on solid legal ground that GMO labels are no different from other labels indicating what is in a food item.
“The same way they’re required to disclose sugar content, fat content, calories, salt, whatever. It’s not caution this is harmful to your health, it’s just for consumers to look at two packages, see what’s in them and make a decision on which they want to buy,” said Bill Sorrell, D-Vt. Attorney General.
A U.S. District Court judge is considering the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and the industry’s motion to block the law from taking effect until after the legal case is decided. Sorrell says Wednesday’s hearing is just the first day of a process that could take months. The lawsuit will take even longer.
“I’ll be really surprised if this case is over in the next few years, it’s going to take a long time. But we’re fighting, and we hope to have the law upheld,” said Sorrell.
The GMO labeling law is scheduled to start July 1, 2016, but the judge’s decision on this hearing will determine when the law will take effect and if the case will go to trial. The state has a fund to help with legal costs called the Vermont Food Fight Fund. Donations from individuals to the likes of Ben & Jerry’s have raised more than $330,000 so far according to the Food Fight Fund’s Twitter.
Supporters and opponents of GMO labeling will square up in a courtroom in Burlington, Vermont, today (Jan 7) to present oral arguments over the merits of Act 120, which will require mandatory labeling of foods produced with genetic engineering.
House bill 4432, sponsored by Kansas Republican Representative Mike Pompeo, would require the definition of a bio-engineered organism, require any labeling to disclose the material difference between GMO food and comparable marketed food, and preempt any except identical state or local regulations.
Subcommittee Chair, Pennsylvania Republican Joseph Pitts, expressed doubts about allowing individual states to mandate GMO labels. “There have recently been a number of state initiatives calling for the mandatory labeling of food products that contain GMOs. Food labeling is matter of interstate commerce and is therefore clearly a federal issue that rightfully resides with Congress and the FDA. I am concerned that a patchwork of 50 separate state labeling schemes would be impractical and unworkable. Such a system would create confusion among consumers and result in higher prices and fewer options.”
Subcommittee member, California Democrat Henry Waxman, countered that states must be allowed to make decisions that are right for their citizens. “Even if there is not a compelling reason to require GE labeling at the federal level, that doesn’t necessarily mean Congress should tell Vermont and other states that they cannot require such labeling. I’ve always believed states should have the right to act in the best interest of their residents. I want to hear from our industry witnesses why the Vermont legislation and potentially similar legislation in other states is so harmful to some legitimate public interest that Congress should override them. Absent a compelling reason otherwise I support letting states make their own laws and govern themselves.”
Some Vermont GMO-labeling supporters were in Washington joining others from across the country to protest what they have dubbed the “Dark Act” or Deny Americans the Right to Know.
Members of the Vermont Right to Know Coalition ventured out in the storm Wednesday to show solidarity at the Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier. Vermont Public Interest Research Group Consumer Protection Advocate Falko Schilling says the House proposal is a direct attack on Vermont’s new law. “The reason that this bill is a direct attack on Vermont’s GMO labeling law is because it explicitly lays out that if this law passes no state could pass a law requiring the labeling of food because it’s genetically engineered. And we believe that part of the purpose of this bill is to try and overturn the law that was passed by the Vermont Legislature just this last year.”
Rural Vermont Executive Director Andrea Stander says the bill is a direct affront to what Vermont has accomplished. “The federal government rather than doing what everybody has been asking them to do, which is to establish a fair national mandatory labeling protocol, instead they’re attacking states’ rights. Given that they’ve been dragging their feet on doing anything in terms of labeling at the federal level to come back at us with something that just undermines the work that’s being done at the state level is, it’s really frustrating.”
Stander adds that genetic engineering is a significant enough difference in how food is produced that people want to know. “The fact that these major food corporations and chemical companies who are the purveyors of genetically engineered food are so insistent that Americans don’t deserve the right to know this piece of information is just baffling. If it’s so great why not tell us about it?”
Representative Kate Webb, Assistant Majority Leader in the Vermont House of Representatives, appeared in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Dec. 10 to testify before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health regarding H.R. 4432. Webb opened her statement by announcing that she was not acting as a representative of her state or government, but as a Vermont citizen speaking in support of citizens’ right to know if the foods they buy contain genetically modified organisms.
H.R. 4432, sponsored by Congressman Mike Pompeo (R) of Kansas, would codify the current voluntary food labeling system. In her testimony, Webb cautioned that H.R. 4432 would ultimately undo the work of Vermont’s recently passed Act 120, the law that requires genetically engineered products sold in Vermont to be labeled as such. Webb was one of the primary sponsors behind Act 120, which passed 28-2 in the Senate and 114-30 in the House.
“Most people would greatly prefer a national mandatory [genetically engineered] labeling system and national rules designed to restrict misleading claims of products being ‘natural,’” Webb stated in her witness testimony, citing a 2013 study by a University of Vermont professor that found more than 75 percent of Vermonters to be in favor of such labeling.
Webb offered further support for her opinion, saying “One of the great strengths of a capitalist democracy is not only do we cast a vote at the polls, we also do so in selecting the products we purchase. Transparency allows us to see how things work, be it government, financial institutions or the foods we eat—what is in them, where they come from, and how they are produced. This transparency allows us to make informed decisions, and ultimately build trust.” In closing, Webb urged the subcommittee to oppose H.R. 4432 and support the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered products.
H.R. 4432, titled “The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014,” is supported by lobbyists representing companies such as PepsiCo Inc., the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and Monsanto Co., according to OpenSecrets.org.
MONTPELIER –A state representative and some activists will travel to Washington in a bid to stop a federal law that would pre-empt states like Vermont from requiring labels on genetically modified foods.
Rep. Kate Webb, a Shelburne Democrat and a key backer of the GMO labeling bill that passed in Vermont this year, is set to testify Wednesday before a U.S. House committee. She’s then expected to participate in a rally in downtown Washington aimed at stopping the legislation sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican.
In Vermont, meanwhile, local activists have set a 3:30 p.m. news conference for the Hunger Mountain food co-op in Montpelier with the same purpose in mind.
MONTPELIER >> New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Farm is one of two organic dairy producers that have withdrawn from a trade group seeking to overturn Vermont’s GMO labeling law. The other is California’s Clover Stornetta Farms.
The companies say they are “under fire” from consumers who support the policy, according to a letter sent to the head of the International Dairy Foods Association.
Vermont’s GMO law would require labeling of certain food products containing genetically engineered ingredients starting in 2016. The IDFA is one of four trade groups that have filed suit against Vermont, arguing the law is unconstitutional. the lead plaintiff is the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
“Our decision to stop our membership wasn’t that hard, honestly,” said Britt Lundgren, director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield Farm. “I don’t view this as a big loss for us. Stonyfield is a strong supporter of GMO labeling across the country.”
On July 8, an organic faction appeared within the IDFA when five members, all represented by another organic trade group, sent a letter to the association’s president to express their “deep concern and unhappiness” with IDFA’s decision to participate in the lawsuit.
“We are not clear why IDFA entered the lawsuit, as the labeling law does not affect dairy ingredients. As near as we can tell, this was an internal decision, with little or no consideration for the diverse interests of the membership,” the letter states.
“I hope that IDFA takes this as message that they do need to do a better job of reaching out to all of their stakeholders,” Lundgren said.
But others, including Horizon Organic, Aurora Organic Dairy and Organic Valley, will retain their membership with the IDFA. They are also members of the Organic Trade Association, a vocal proponent of state GMO labeling initiatives.
“We still belong to the IDFA,” wrote Sara Loveday, a spokesperson for Horizon Organic, which is a subsidiary of the Denver, Colorado-based WhiteWave Foods Company, in an email to VTDigger. “But the organization has agreed that our dues have not and will not be used for anti-labeling efforts.”
Horizon decided to stay with the IDFA in order to have a seat at the table, Loveday said.
“We believe that the most effective option for fighting the IDFA’s anti-labeling actions is to use the power of our memberships to voice our opposition to their approach. As you referenced, we have made it clear to the IDFA that we do not approve of their decision to join GMA’s lawsuit against the state of Vermont, and we are in ongoing discussions with them about their position,” Loveday wrote.
Peggy Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the IDFA, said as far as she knows, no other members have withdrawn.
Though dairy products are exempt under the law, many producers use sweeteners, such as corn syrup, which often comes from genetically engineered crops. Even a company like WhiteWave, which owns Horizon Organic, has products in its portfolio that contain GMOs, a spokesperson said.
Some companies oppose the state labeling law, but prefer a uniform national policy. The trade groups in the lawsuit argue a patchwork of labeling creates a costly logistical obstacle for food producers..
Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director for the Organic Trade Association, which represents some of IDFA’s members, said member companies have a right to voice their own perspective, as long as they do not publicly attack the trade association.
“Having a policy as a trade association doesn’t require a unanimity of thought,” Batcha said.
Industry groups sued Vermont over a GMO labeling law; case could set precedent for states mulling similar legislation December 1, 2014
By Peter Moskowitz Full Article
Food activists and the industry are looking to a court case between Vermont and a major food distribution association as a bellwether for genetically modified foods.
In May the state legislature voted to require food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled as such. If the law goes into effect in 2016, Vermont will be the first state to require such labeling. But first it will have to stand up in federal court: The Grocery Manufacturers Association — which is funded by a coalition of companies such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, Starbucks and Monsanto — and three other industry groups sued the state shortly after the law passed.
Now several other states with pending ballot initiatives and legislation that would similarly require GMO labeling are awaiting the district court’s decision. Arguments are tentatively scheduled for mid-December, according to Vermont’s attorney general.
“I know other attorneys general are watching this case closely,” said Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell. “Clearly other states are considering it. This is not a political issue. Most consumers think it’s important.”
If Vermont’s law is shot down in court, it would be a big win for the food industry, which has for years been trying to quash the growing push for GMO labeling. The industry argues that labeling is fearmongering, since the Food and Drug Administration considers food made with GMO essentially the same as non-GMO food.
In Vermont the industry is arguing that the state is trying to unfairly burden the business with its own labeling requirements and superseding federal regulations, which would be in violation of the Constitution’s commerce clause if it interferes with the free flow of food from state to state. The industry is also arguing that such labeling falls under political — as opposed to commercial — speech. Requiring a company to parrot the state’s political speech would be a violation of the First Amendment.
If the court upholds Vermont’s law, the case could have a domino effect across states considering GMO labeling laws. Twenty states have pushed for GMO labeling through legislatures, according to the Center for Food Safety, a pro-labeling group.
Connecticut and Maine have already passed GMO laws, but they include clauses that prevent the laws from being triggered until other states also pass legislation. Connecticut’s law require states with populations totaling more than 20 million to pass similar laws before its takes effect, and Maine’s law is in waiting until five other Northeastern states pass similar laws.
Colorado, California, and Washington have seen unsuccessful ballot initiatives pushing for labeling. Oregon activists have also tried to vote in GMO labeling. A labeling initiative was voted down in 2002, and another attempt in November is still too close to call, with votes being recounted.
Those delays would make Vermont the first state where GMO labeling initiatives would come to fruition, and activists are pinning their hopes on the court case.
“State-based labeling is something that hasn’t been really vetted by the courts,” said Falko Schilling, a consumer protection advocate at Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which is supporting the state with legal help in the case. “There will be more appeals [from the food industry], but this will serve as precedent.”
Grocery Manufacturers Association representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, but in a statement on the suit from August wrote, “Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law — Act 120 — is a costly and misguided measure that will set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers … The First Amendment dictates that when speech is involved, Vermont policymakers cannot merely act as a pass-through for the fads and controversies of the day. It must point to a truly governmental interest, not just a political one.”
Supporters of the lawsuit are confident they can counter the GMA’s claims effectively in court.
“The GMO bills in Vermont, Maine, Oregon — they’re 99 percent the same,” said Will Allen, the owner of Cedar Circle Farm and one of the most prominent anti-GMO organizers in Vermont. “Four states have passed essentially the same law, so it’s not a patchwork. There is a patchwork of laws in dozens of countries, but these companies, they do business all over the world.”
The science on GMOs is controversial. While the FDA considers food containing genetically modified ingredients safe, activist groups contend that not enough is known about GMOs to guarantee there will be no negative long-term effects of ingesting GMO foods. Some studies have found that GMO foods are less nutritional and can cause digestive problems in animals.
Regardless of the science, pro-labelers say it can’t hurt to give consumers more information. The public seems to agree: According to a New York Times poll conducted in 2013, 93 percent of people said foods containing GMOs should be labeled.
But Sorrell and others point out that the government requires labeling of other aspects of food. “It’s a straightforward message about what’s in the product,” he said. “We don’t think it’s an undue burden. We believe in the same way that manufacturers are compelled to list fats and sugars, governmental interest overrides First Amendment protection in this case.”
However the judge rules, the case will likely wind its way to higher courts. Sorrell and his team said they would challenge a defeat and expect the GMA to do the same.
For some activists, that’s the point of the Vermont case. Labeling proponents acknowledge that having 50 states with 50 solutions to GMO labeling would be untenable. But they’re hoping that Vermont will eventually force the Supreme Court to act on GMO labeling for the entire country.
“The GMA will fight us state by state,” said Dave Murphy, the executive director of Food Democracy Now, a national anti-GMO organization. “They’ll probably appeal it up to the Supreme Court. We understand it’s going to eventually be a federal standard.”
Three national businesses are helping to defend Vermont’s GMO labeling law. The companies told a federal court last week that the state statute, which requires food manufacturers and retailers to label certain products containing genetically modified ingredients, would not be difficult to implement.
Organic energy bar manufacturer Clif Bar and Company, filed an amicus brief in support of Vermont’s law. Rhonda Miller, the company’s senior sourcing manager, said she has 24 years of experience in packaging.
“In my opinion, there is nothing posed by the small changes required by the Vermont law that would put anyone out of business or cause an overwhelming logistical hurdle,” Miller said.
Miller of Clif Bar and Company said the label changes would take at most six months.
“In my professional opinion, a change such as the one mandated by the Vermont law would require nothing more than a simple artwork change and would not be time intensive,” Miller said.
The other two manufacturers that filed briefs supporting Vermont’s GMO labeling law were Beanfields Snacks and Ben & Jerry’s.
Four other groups filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Vermont’s labeling law: the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and the Center for Food Safety represented by an attorney at the Vermont Law School, the Vermont Community Law Center, and Free Speech for People, Inc.
Attorney General William Sorrell is well aware of the high stakes involved in his defense of Vermont’s labeling law for genetically modified organisms against a lawsuit by the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Across the nation, farmers, corporate executives at giant multinational food companies such as Unilever, and millions of Americans who question the health effects of genetically engineered food are watching and waiting to see what happens in the Vermont lawsuit. Oral arguments in the case tentatively are scheduled for early January.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association and several other trade organizations filed the lawsuit against the state one month after the law passed in May. The association argues that Act 120, as the law is known, violates the U.S. Constitution by compelling manufacturers to “convey messages they do not want to convey,” among other arguments.
Vermont’s law doesn’t go into effect until July 1, 2016, but the grocery association already is asking the U.S. District Court in Vermont to grant a temporary injunction to prevent the state from moving forward with implementation of the law. Sorrell’s team, which includes high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm Robbins, Russell, retained on a contract for $1.465 million, will argue to dismiss the lawsuit.
“We have committed to doing our level best to uphold this law,” Sorrell said. “This law has strong support from the Legislature and Vermonters.”
National polling shows a majority of Americans think consumers have the right to know whether genetically engineered ingredients are in the food they’re buying, Sorrell said. The Vermont law would require that processed foods made entirely or partially with genetic engineering be labeled “produced with genetic engineering,” “partially produced with genetic engineering” or “may be produced with genetic engineering.”
Sorrell said he’s still working out where this labeling would go on the package and how prominent the text will be.
The initial thinking is that the labeling would be near the ingredients list in about the same type size as “Serving Size” on the existing label, listing calories and other information, said Chris Miller, social mission activism manager for Ben & Jerry’s.
The ice-cream maker supports the law but is in an unusual position: Parent company Unilever belongs to the trade association that’s suing Vermont.
Miller said he sees no problem with labeling.
“Our co-founder Jerry Greenfield said it best,” Miller said. “Companies should be proud of the ingredients they use in products they sell. What does it say if a company doesn’t want to tell you?”
That misses the point of the labeling controversy entirely, countered Karen Batra, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, based in Washington, D.C. BIO represents the companies that develop genetically engineered foods.
Batra sees Vermont’s labeling law as a political statement — a scarlet letter, if you will — marking foods with genetically engineered ingredients as unnatural and to be avoided. And for no good reason, she said, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has long ruled there is no difference between genetically engineered foods and their non-engineered counterparts.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association points out in its lawsuit that in 2013, 93 percent of the soybeans and 90 percent of the corn grown in the United States started with genetically engineered seeds. About half of all domestically produced sugar comes from genetically engineered sugar beets, and 88 percent of cotton, used for cottonseed oil, is genetically engineered. Alfalfa, canola, squash and Hawaiian papayas also have “widely used” genetic engineering, according to the lawsuit.
A hunger issue
Proponents of genetic engineering make two main arguments:
•The technique is necessary to feed the world’s growing population.
•It is environmentally beneficial.
Chris Miller of Ben & Jerry’s, and those on the other side of the GMO debate, reject these arguments.
Miller dispenses with the “feed the world” argument by pointing out that 30 percent of all perishable food in grocery stores now gets thrown away. The problem, Miller said, is not that we don’t have enough food — it’s that the food is not reaching the people who need it.
“If you look at the rates of hunger in the United States, 20 percent of children go to bed hungry every night,” Miller said. “We have a hunger issue in the United States and not because we don’t have enough food. We produce enough calories to feed everybody. The problem is access, driven by economics. A massive part of the globe lives on less than $3 a day.”
As for the pesticide/herbicide argument, Vermont State Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, lead sponsor of Vermont’s GMO labeling bill, told the Burlington Free Press in June he worries about the possible long-term effects of monkeying with a seed’s genetic makeup to increase crop resistance to pests and weeds.
Zuckerman gave the example of a naturally occurring pesticide called bacillus thuringiensis, effective for certain moths and worms, and one of the few pesticides he can use as an organic farmer. As it turns out, bacillus thuringiensis also is being used in genetically engineered seeds.
“When it’s in a plant and there for the whole season at concentrations 500 to 1,000 times higher, then those bugs can become resistant,” Zuckerman said in June. “If three bugs live out of 500,000 in the field because they happen to be genetically resistant, they’re going to find each other and breed. Eventually there will be a built-up resistance to that pesticide.”
An independent social mission
Ben & Jerry’s has found itself in the awkward position of supporting GMO labeling at the same time its parent company, Unilever, is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which brought the lawsuit against Vermont to strike down the labeling law. Unilever also contributed to a campaign to defeat a GMO labeling law proposed in California in 2012.
This is where the iconic ice cream company’s independent status within the Unilever global empire, including having its own board of directors, comes into play, Social Mission Activism Manager Chris Miller said.
“Part of the acquisition agreement between Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever allows Ben & Jerry’s to pursue its independent social mission,” Miller said. “Our support of mandatory GMO labeling comes from our progressive values.”
Those values also were behind Ben & Jerry’s refusal in 1989 to use milk produced by cows being injected with rGBH, a bovine growth hormone that increased milk production by up to 20 percent, Miller said.
Beginning in 2015, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream will use all non-GMO ingredients, Miller said. It took 18 months of work to get there. Miller is careful to make the distinction that Ben & Jerry’s is not claiming to be GMO-free, which he described as a “very strong, absolute claim” that would require third-party certification.
“We’re not doing third-party certification,” Miller said. “We require our suppliers to sign an affidavit that says the ingredients they’re using are non-GMO. Our supplier has to have an affidavit from their supplier stating the same thing, all the way back to the farm.”
As for the exemption given to dairy in Vermont’s GMO labeling law — obviously a major component of ice cream — Miller said that “because a cow eats genetically engineered feed doesn’t make the milk genetically engineered.”
“We have a long history of commitment to the consumers’ right to know and transparency in the food system,” Miller said. “The current iteration is our support for GMO labeling.”
Nevertheless, Ben & Jerry’s found itself the target about a year and a half ago of a boycott called for by the Organic Consumers Association, based in Finland, Minn.
“They were unhappy with our parent company’s role in the Proposition 37 mandatory GMO labeling fight in California, which failed,” Miller said.
Public records show Unilever spent about $467,000 fighting a proposal for mandatory GMO labeling in California in 2012, out of a total of about $40 million spent by opponents of the proposed law. Proposition 37 was defeated by nearly 400,000 votes, 51-48 percent.
A total of 24 states considered GMO labeling laws in 2014, with only Vermont and Maine passing measures. In the other 22 states, legislation either was defeated, withdrawn or held.
The highest-profile defeat came in Oregon, where many observers felt a labeling law in that progressive state had a good chance of passing. The law was defeated by 809 votes out of a total of 1.5 million cast, the Oregonian newspaper reported, triggering a recount.
Ben & Jerry’s spent $303,039 supporting the proposed GMO labeling law in Oregon, according to public records. The money went to in-kind contributions for yard signs, buttons and social-media outreach, including a video that went viral. The company also put two ice-cream trucks on the road, giving out free ice cream and registering voters.
No trigger required
Aside from Vermont and Maine, only one other state, Connecticut, has passed a labeling law, and in both Connecticut and Maine, the law requires additional triggers to go into effect.
In Connecticut, four other states, one of which shares a border with Connecticut, must pass similar legislation before the Connecticut law takes effect. Additionally, the combined population of Northeastern states that enact GMO labeling laws must total more than 20 million people, based on the 2010 census. Maine has a similar trigger.
Vermont Attorney General Sorrell said those other states are just chicken.
“I suspect there was a reluctance to shoulder the responsibility for defending the law without other states having similar statutes,” Sorrell said. “An abundance of caution.”
Vermont was unhampered by any such reluctance.
“We went ahead and did it,” Sorrell said. “We’ve in the past not been afraid to get out ahead of the rest of the country. It’s our right as a state. Once in a while, our efforts get struck down. More often than not, our statutes are upheld in state and federal courts.”
The lawsuit also states that Vermont similarly has shifted the cost of implementing and defending the labeling law to “private individuals and organizations.”
“The Act creates a special fund for that purpose,” the lawsuit states. “The fund may accept an unlimited number of donations, without restrictions on who may give, or how much. The Act limits public funding of the Attorney General’s work to $1.5 million of certain surplus settlement proceeds, if any exist, as well as any additional funds the legislature may appropriate.”
This would be the “Vermont Food Fight Fund,” launched by Gov. Peter Shumlin and Jerry Greenfield with great fanfare at a June rally in front of the Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop on Church Street in Burlington.
The association’s lawsuit also notes that the labeling law bars the attorney general from using public dollars to defend the law “unless and until the private funding runs out.”
Not a minor matter
Sorrell dismissed as irrelevant the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s analysis of how the state is paying for its efforts to defend the labeling law. He said he argued strongly against hinging the defense of the GMO labeling statute on raising private money, which would establish a “really bad precedent.” The Food Fight Fund has about $400,000 in it, he said.
“The Legislature should decide what the law should be and stand behind the statute,” Sorrell said. “It’s one thing on GMO labeling, but let’s go to another issue: abortion, gay rights or whatever. Can you imagine the precedent of saying, ‘We’re going to outlaw this discrimination, but only if enough people out there contribute money to defend the statute?’ “
Sorrell said he’s not going to be “penny-wise and pound-foolish” in defending the GMO labeling law. He estimates it will cost up to $2 million to defend the law through the trial level. Whatever decision is made in federal court in Burlington, the outcome surely will be appealed, perhaps as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, Sorrell said.
Because constitutional issues are involved, Sorrell said, if Vermont loses, the state will be on the hook for the other side’s attorneys’ fees, which easily could drive the cost to the state to $5 million.
“Even putting the case on a so-called ‘fast track,’ it’s entirely possible there will be a number of years to get a final answer,” he said. “I would be shocked if there’s not an appeal.”
The U.S. Supreme Court receives about 7,000 requests each year to hear cases, and takes on only 70 to 80, Sorrell said. But if GMO labeling reaches that point, he believes the case has a good chance of being among the ones the court takes.
“Other states are closely watching the issue,” Sorrell said. “This is not a minor matter.”