Vermont requires GMOs to be labeled, but the future of regulations for genetically engineered ingredients and labels is anything but clear.
There are two striking things about coca-colaproductfacts.com, the website Coke posts all of its nutritional and ingredient information on. One is the sheer number of sodas it produces—64 in all—from the familiar Coca-Cola Classic on down to regional oddities such as Mr. Pibb and ’70s holdover Tab. The second is the language that follows the product facts listed on each soda’s page: “This product includes ingredients sourced from genetically engineered (GE) crops, commonly known as GMOs, which the FDA regards as safe.”
Such disclosures are a new thing for leading companies like Coke, but as Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law goes into effect on Friday, posting information on a website won’t be enough for food makers to comply if they want to keep selling their products in the Green Mountain state. The law, the first of its kind, requires on-package labeling for products that contain GMO ingredients. While some Coca-Cola products—such as Coke and Diet Coke—will have new labels that comply with the law, the company will simply stop selling some of its less popular products in Vermont to avoid the additional costs of changing labels for products that don’t sell all that much in general and likely don’t have much of a market in the second-smallest state in the union. According to the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, an estimated 10 percent of products will be pulled from shelves as a result of the law.
Other food giants, including General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, and ConAgra, have responded in the opposite manner: Instead of only labeling certain products for the Vermont market, they will voluntarily label all of their products nationwide. With such major players in the food industry opting to label products for their entire U.S. markets, the state-level law could lead to a new national status quo—if not the development of a formalized federal standard. Even as these companies make changes and the likes of Coke pull products off Vermont shelves, they are hoping for a national law, and Congress is still trying to pass one.
“We’ve already printed labels to comply with the Vermont law and are in the process of shipping [products with those labels] to customers nationwide, though this isn’t the mandatory national solution we’re seeking,” Thomas Hushen, a Campbell’s spokesperson, wrote in an email to TakePart. Campbell’s will label items required by the Vermont law and also items that contain meat and therefore cannot be labeled under the current legislation, which only applies to food regulated by the FDA (the USDA handles meat regs).
The confusion created by the new labels, more than the cost of changing labels, is why Campbell’s still wants to see a national standard—even if it preempts state laws like Vermont’s, as the DARK Act would have. (A Mars spokesperson told TakePart earlier this year that the company could support a federal law that required mandatory labeling of products containing GMOs.) “We are seeking a national approach which is clear and simple for consumers and creates a level playing field for food companies,” wrote Hushen, who described the Vermont law as “impractical.”
But as lawmakers in the Senate scramble to pass a bipartisan federal labeling bill, it’s increasingly clear that such a national solution is not necessarily simpler than the Vermont bill—either for consumers or in terms of politics. The bill proposed by Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., would allow food companies to choose between disclosing on-package labeling, a scannable QR code, or a call-in line, and it would also preempt state-level laws like Vermont’s. That has led groups that support labeling laws—such as Just Label It and the Environmental Working Group—to oppose the Senate bill. “We cannot support this proposal because food companies would be permitted to make a GMO disclosure through a means that is unavailable or unfamiliar to many Americans,” Ken Cook, EWG’s president, said in a statement.
Pro-labeling groups rejecting anything less than laws requiring on-package labeling is nothing new. But according to a technical assessment of the Senate bill conducted by the FDA, the language of the law presents its own problems. Labels would be required for a product “that contains genetic material,” according to the report, which would exempt many ingredients derived from GMO crops that no longer contain “genetic material” after being processed. There are concerns that, with such language in the bill, things like GMO soybean oil, sugar-beet sugar, or starches and proteins made from GMO corn and soy would not have to be labeled.
The Senate bill has bipartisan support, and it passed a procedural hurdle on Wednesday but not before Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders followed through on a promise to do “everything I can to defeat this bill,” which would preempt his state’s law. Sanders, who is still technically running to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, “triggered brief parliamentary chaos on the Senate floor” Wednesday, as Politico described it, while attempting to block the bill by suggesting senators could, by voting for the bill, be voting to defund Planned Parenthood. (They weren’t, but the same “shell” used to push the GMO labeling bill forward was deployed in an effort to strip federal funding for the women’s health care organization last year.)
Sanders has framed his opposition to the bill in terms of everyday people versus capitalist corporate interests, a familiar theme of his presidential campaign, and in a statement he called Vermont’s bill “a triumph for ordinary Americans over the powerful interests of Monsanto and other multi-national food industry corporations.” Public polling has shown that a majority of Americans support mandatory labeling laws. Yet, decades of scientific research have shown consuming GMOs presents no risk to human health, and major medical, scientific, and health organizations including the National Institutes of Health, the Institute of Medicine, and the Royal Society of Medicine have deemed them safe for human consumption.
The Senate will vote on whether to advance the federal labeling bill next week, after the Vermont law has taken effect. If it passes, it will still have to make it through the House, which passed its own version of the DARK Act last year.
Meanwhile, products from some of the nation’s largest food companies are hitting shelves in Vermont and across the country with language like this—from Campbell’s new label—on their packaging: “Partially produced with genetic engineering. For more information about G.M.O. ingredients, visit WhatsinMyFood.com.”