The tiny state of Vermont is making a very big statement—as of tomorrow, all products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will have to be clearly marked on its shelves.
While the scientific community is more or less in agreement that there are no measurable health concerns from GM foods, the labeling battle has long been framed as a consumer rights issue. In essence, the argument is that—safe or not—we have the right to know what’s in our food.
Labeling everything that contains GMOs is no small feat—the Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates up to 80 percent of supermarket foods contain GM ingredients (GM corn, soy, canola and sugar beets are quite pervasive). Claiming Vermont was creating an unfair burden, major food companies tried suing the state. No dice.
Many companies have claimed it’s too costly to make separate labels for individual states—Kellogg’s, General Mills, Campbells and Mars all recently announced they will label their GM products nationwide.
Vermont only has a population of about 625,000—some feared that food manufacturers would simply stop stocking shelves there. Largely this threat has not materialized, though Coca Cola just announced it may start selling fewer products in Vermont.
Other states tried and failed to pass similar legislation; food manufacturers have spent hundreds of millions to defeat these patchwork initiatives. Maine and Connecticut both passed weak versions that would only go into effect if neighboring states followed suit.
Fearing that Vermont’s laws were only the beginning, Big Food launched a major campaign on the national level, demanding that Congress ban state-by-state labeling initiatives. This failed, but a current bill in the Senate would limit GM information to QR codes you can scan (with no visible packaging label). Very few consumers actually use QR codes; the Senate bill is seen as a way of torpedoing state labeling bills. (Yes, Bernie is fighting this legislation.)
For better or for worse, Vermont’s law commences tomorrow, but will not be enforced until January 2017. This will allow food companies—big and small—some wiggle room to work out their labeling kinks. It also could allow Congress a chance to squash the state’s law.