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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Lawmakers Hope To Advance GMO Labeling Legislation

AP/Toby Talbot

Before the Vermont House closes the legislative session sometime next month, lawmakers could still vote on a bill that would change the way food sold in Vermont is labeled.

Time is short, but a key House committee turned quickly this week to genetically engineered organisms – or GMOs – as it considered a bill that would require labeling of such products. If passed, though, the measure could become a legal challenge.

Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, a lead sponsor of the GMO bill, delivered on Thursday binders full of research to the House Judiciary Committee.

“There is increasing evidence that genetically engineered foods are posing health risks; there are risks to people who have religious concerns and there are those of us that also have significant concerns about the loss of bio-diversity in the environment,” Webb said.

GMOs, Webb argued, have snuck into the market in the past 15 years without peer-reviewed studies – and without rigorous review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“In fact, the FDA does no testing,” she explained. “They simply require a report from the bio-tech industry saying that they’re safe. For most of us, that is simply not enough.”

The bill before the committee this week would require the labeling of foods produced with genetic engineering. It would exempt meat and dairy that has been fed genetically engineered grains, and it would also prohibit the use of the term “natural” on the labels of those foods.

“History will prove that we were right,” Webb said, defending the bill. “I believe that ultimately this labeling will be required.”

Vermonters have long prided themselves on having a strong, local food movement – for knowing what’s in their food and where it comes from. And Vermont is not alone. Thirty states, including Oregon and Connecticut, are taking up similar GMO bills. But if the bill moves forward in Montpelier, Vermont would lead the way.

That concerns the state’s dairy industry, which depends on corn from genetically engineered seeds.

“Some food manufacturer is going to start preparing for this,” said lobbyist Margaret Laggis, who represents the United Dairy Farmers of Vermont. Laggis said the Legislature should expect a lawsuit if it requires the labeling of genetically engineered or “GE” foods.

Laggis agrees that Vermonters should know what’s in their food, but she says the state shouldn’t require labels. And she argues that this measure is fundamentally flawed.

“This bill exempts ice cream so it would allow an ice cream manufacturer to label their product as being GE free, when 100 percent of the cream comes from cows eating 100 percent GE feed,” Laggis said.

Both supporters and opponents point to companies around the state who are already changing their means of production: Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and Lake Champlain Chocolates, for example, have pledged to stop using ingredients produced with genetic engineering in their food.

Still, supporters of GMO labeling say carefully-crafted legislation would accelerate that movement.