Go Vermont! GMA: 'Today's announcement is the latest example of how Vermont's looming labeling mandate is a serious problem for businesses ... One small state's law is setting labeling standards for consumers across the country.'
Three of the US's biggest food companies have yielded to the inevitable and announced they will be labeling GM ingredients on their products across the entire country: Mars, General Mills and now Kelloggs and ConAgra.
The labels will be set out in compliance with the Vermont Act 120 passed in May 2014 which mandates that all ingredients derived from GMOs must be clearly labeled on food product packaging. The law has been implemented in as Vermont's Consumer Protection Rule 121 which takes effect in July 2016.
The move follows the narrow defeat last week of the DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act by the US Senate, which voted 49-48 to temporarily halt the bill's progress. If passed into the law, the DARK Act would remove states' right to require GMO labeling.
Although the Senate vote did not kill the DARK Act outright, it both introduced a delay and gave a strong indication that the sentiment of senators, following intensive lobbying from their constutuents, was turning against the industry-supported legislation, strongly backed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA).
Properly known as H.R. 1599, the 'Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act', the DARK Act was introduced to Congress by Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) and was passed 275-150 on 23rd July 2015.
But with Vermont's CP121 coming into effect this summer, food companies are having to move fast to ensure that their product labels are compliant following the Senate's surprise vote.
Mars and General Mills: 'we are doing this because we have to'
First to announce the move was General Mills, whose statement reads: "As the discussions continue in Washington, one thing is very clear: Vermont state law requires us to start labeling certain grocery store food packages that contain GMO ingredients or face significant fines.
"We can't label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that. The result: consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products."
Mars has also just released a statement of its own position on GMOs, which includes the key words: "In 2014, the state of Vermont passed a mandatory genetically modified (GM) ingredient labeling law that requires most human food products containing GM ingredients to include on-pack labeling as of July 2016.
"To comply with that law, Mars is introducing clear, on-pack labeling on our products that contain GM ingredients nationwide."
But Mars is equivocal on whether it sees any need - other than the legal requirement - to label its GMO ingredients. "At Mars, we not only ensure the safety of all raw materials in our products, we're also committed to being transparent with our consumers so they can understand what's in the products they love", it states.
But it then adds: "We firmly believe GM ingredients are safe. Food developed through biotechnology has been studied extensively and judged safe by a broad range of regulatory agencies, scientists, health professionals, and other experts around the world."
General Mills: 'we need a national solution'
General Mills statement continues: "With the Vermont labeling legislation upon us, and with the distinct possibility that other states will enact different labeling requirements, what we need is simple: We need a national solution."
Of course the DARK Act would provide a national solution - just not one that gives consumers a clear right to know what is in their food. Moreover the US Senate has clearly signalled its disapproval of the proposed legislation.
However there is an alternative, the 'Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity' bill, introduced early this month by four Democrat senators: Oregon's Senator Jeff Merkley; Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Jon Tester; and California's Dianne Feinstein.
"This bill is an important step forward to give consumers a uniform national mandatory label, and it seeks to address the needs of food producers by giving them a suite of options to comply with a mandatory national label", said Leahy, a current member and former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, as he introduced the legislation to the Senate.
"I believe that until a national mandatory label like this is enacted, Congress should not preempt state laws, like Vermont's Act 120."
The bill immediately won the support of progressive food companies and consumer advocates, including Amy's Kitchen, Ben and Jerry's, Campbell's Soup Company, Consumers Union, Just Label It, and Nature's Path.
Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, said: "This is what real disclosure looks like. This bill finds a way to set a national standard and avoid a patchwork of state labeling laws while still giving consumers the information they want and deserve about what's in their food.
"This compromise offers food companies different labeling options and ensures that all consumers - no matter where they are in the country or whether they own a smartphone - have the information they overwhelmingly say they want. We urge Senators to support this proposal as they move forward on GMO labeling legislation."
Now, who's next?
Campbell's Soup announced its own move to label GMO ingredients in January, stating: "Campbell has been actively involved in trying to resolve this issue since 2011. We've worked with GMA, legislators and regulators to forge a national voluntary solution. We've engaged a variety of stakeholders, from lawmakers to activists. I've personally made multiple trips to Capitol Hill to meet with elected officials.
"Despite these efforts, Congress has not been able to resolve this issue. We now believe that proposing a mandatory national solution is necessary. Printing a clear and simple statement on the label is the best solution for consumers and for Campbell."
And many more companies now appear certain to follow in coming days and weeks - or be forced to withdraw from the Vermont market. Kelloggs, which just announced it will be complying with the Vermont law, has yet to release a statement. ConAgra states:
"ConAgra Foods will begin adding labels to products nationwide by July 2016 to meet Vermont's GMO labeling requirements. We stand behind the health and safety of all of our products, including those with genetically modified ingredients, and believe consumers should be informed as to what's in their food.
"But addressing state-by-state labeling requirements adds significant complications and costs for food companies. With a multitude of other states currently considering different GMO labeling requirements, the need for a national, uniform approach in this area is as critical as ever. That's why we continue to urge Congress to pass a national solution as quickly as possible."
The GMA set out its position in a statement in which it effectively concedes defeat - for now: "Today's announcement is the latest example of how Vermont's looming labeling mandate is a serious problem for businesses. Food companies are being forced to make decisions on how to comply and having to spend millions of dollars. One small state's law is setting labeling standards for consumers across the country.
"GMA member companies such as General Mills are individually deciding how they will comply with the Vermont law, even as the company is working with other food manufacturers, retailers and agriculture groups to continue to push for passage of the federal bill that would protect consumers, farmers and small businesses from a costly patchwork of state labeling laws.
"This announcement should give new urgency to the need for action on a national law when the Senate returns from its recess in April."
Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.