By John Herrick
The Vermont Legislature passed the nation’s first GMO labeling law, now state officials must figure out how it will be carried out.
The Attorney General’s Office took comments on proposed rules for labeling genetically engineered ingredients in food products during a public meeting Wednesday in Montpelier, the second in a series of hearings on the rules.
State law requires food manufacturers and retailers to label certain products containing genetically modified ingredients sold after July 1, 2016. Act 120 is being challenged in federal court by industry trade groups, who say the law is unconstitutional and warn it will increase food prices.
There are a variety of genetically engineered ingredients in processed foods, such as corn, sugar beets, canola oil, sugar beets, cotton seed oil and alfalfa grain. Some raw agricultural products are also genetically modified, such as sweet corn, rainbow papaya and summer squash.
The audience Wednesday asked questions specifically about which products must be labeled, who discloses the information and how they do it. Assistant Attorney General Todd Daloz explained how the state is addressing these concerns.
For packaged foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, manufacturers must place a “clear and conspicuous” label anywhere on the packaged. Retailers are responsible to labeling certain unpackaged products. The label must read, “Produced with Genetic Engineering.”
Daloz said it should be the same type size as the “Serving Size” label on the back of food packages.
“It’s not a warning, it’s not in big letters, but it has to be easily found,” he said.
But for other foods it is less simple. For example, Daloz said the law was silent on unpackaged processed foods, such as bulk, bakery or deli items.
According to the rules, retailers are required to label these products. Daloz pointed to a photo of a bulk bin full of lentils with a label stating “Produced with Genetic Engineering” next to the per pound price as an example. (Lentils, however, are not produced with genetic engineering for sale to consumers, he said.)
If 75 percent of the product’s ingredients by weight are genetically engineered, the label can read, “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” If the manufacturer does not know, the product can be labeled, “May be Produced with Genetic Engineering.” The modifier can only be used if the manufacturer attempts to determine whether their product contains genetically engineered ingredients, Daloz said.
Products containing genetically engineered ingredients cannot use the word “nature,” “natural” or “naturally” on the package or in advertising, according to the proposed rules. The prohibition does not apply to trade, brand or product names or the name of ingredients.
Certain animal products, processing aids, alcoholic beverages, unpackaged taxable restaurant food for immediate consumption, certified organic food, medical food and products containing less than 0.9 percent genetically engineered ingredients are exempt from the labeling requirement, according to the rules.
Manufacturers can rely on the statements from an original manufacturer who swears the product does not contain genetically engineered ingredients, Daloz said.
The rules do not regulate food sales on the Internet, but these sales are not explicitly exempt under the law. Daloz said the labeling requirement applies to Internet sales if a retailer has a physical location in Vermont.
Food grown in Vermont but sold out of state does not have to be labeled, he said.
The attorney general can issue a civil penalty as high as $1,000 per day, per product, under the proposed rules. The consumer protection division will enforce the law.
The Attorney General’s Office will develop a final draft rule, which then must be approved by the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules.