Rider Challenging Vermont GMO Labeling Law Removed From Budget Bill

Dec 22, 2015

The latest attempt in Congress to block states from passing GMO labeling laws has failed. It’s good news for Vermont, which is poised to become the first state in the country to implement mandatory GMO labeling on July 1st.

Last July, the House passed a measure that would have prevented individual states from enacting mandatory GMO labeling laws.  What opponents referred to as the DARK Act, or Denying Americans the Right to Know, would instead have created a voluntary national labeling system.   The Senate declined to take up the measure.

The next move was an attempt to include the provisions in a policy rider attached to the omnibus appropriations bill, but the provision was rejected last week.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group is a member of the Vermont Right to Know GMOs Coalition, which advocates for mandatory labeling.  Consumer and Environmental Advocate Falco Schilling says the coalition members are excited that the attempt to get a preemption on states requiring labeling on genetically engineered foods through the spending bill has failed.   “This wasn’t a great policy  considering that approximately 90 percent of Americans want to see labels on genetically engineered foods.  So sneaking something into a rider at the 12th hour that would take away states’ rights to give consumers that information was something a lot of senators couldn’t stomach and I think that was what led to a positive result  at the end of the day.”

Vermont Law School Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic Laura Murphy believes it’s good that no federal action can, for the moment, preempt Vermont’s labeling laws.  “There’s quite a few polls showing that most Americans want these labels.  And then just the push from constituents to the folks in D.C. saying ‘Hey don’t preempt state actions on labels for GE foods.’  And I think the other thing is what was really happening certainly in the DARK Act was not only preempting states, but also making it really hard for the FDA to require labels.”

Vermont Retail and Grocers’ Association President Jim Harrison is not surprised that the rider was pulled out of the spending bill.  But he says supporters of the effort will continue to seek national uniformity in labeling.   “In the short term we don’t have uniformity.  The court has not to date intervened and Congress to date has not intervened.  So at this point Vermont’s law will proceed.  And the question for the industry and for consumers and for politicians is what happens if other states adopt something differently?  And that’s really a big concern for all.”

The fate of Vermont’s law is still in question as the state attorney general prepares to defend it against a challenge by food industry interests.

VPIRGs’ Schilling will be watching those proceedings closely even as he anticipates more legislative challenges.   “The grocery manufacturers have said that preempting states like Vermont from requiring labels on genetically engineered food is a top priority for them. They’re going to be coming back in full force in January.  So we’re going to have to remain vigilant. As far as the courts we are definitely watching closely what’s happening at the 2nd Circuit. Based off of what we heard out of the District Court earlier this year we are hopeful for a positive outcome, but definitely watching that closely.”

Harrison expects renewed discussions in the new year.   “The Senate Ag Committee chair and some of the leading members have pledged to take up the issue again when they return in January.  The USDA Secretary has also offered to convene a group of varied interests to talk about issues.  It’s not just about GMO labeling.  The issue is about state-by-state food labeling laws and it could add significant costs if we go down that path.”

Calls to the Vermont Attorney General and the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association, two key litigants in the GMO lawsuit, were not returned in time for broadcast.