BRATTLEBORO -- Though Vermont does not yet require labeling of genetically modified foods, the fact that state lawmakers are moving toward such a law has prompted concerns about lengthy and costly legal battles.
But U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vt.-I, wants to ensure that his home state -- and any other state -- can enact such "GMO-labeling" laws without fear of litigation from opponents.
Sanders announced Wednesday that he has proposed a farm-bill amendment that would allow states to require labeling on foods that are produced with or derived from organisms that have been genetically engineered.
"Vermont and other states must be allowed to label GMO foods," Sanders said.
After much testimony and debate, a majority in the Vermont House voted earlier this month to mandate GMO labeling. The Senate took no action before the 2013 legislative session ended, but senators are expected to consider the bill next year.
"How quickly they get to work on it, I don't know," said state Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham. "My hope is, they will take it up and pass it."
If that happens, and if Gov. Peter Shumlin signs the bill into law, Vermont would become the first state to mandate GMO labeling. And it could become a test case for anyone in the bio-technology or food industries who wishes to challenge such a law.
Some critics have pointed to past legal entanglements including Vermont's failed effort in the 1990s to require labeling of dairy products from cows that had been given a growth hormone called bovine somatotropin.
But Partridge, who chairs the House Agriculture and Forest Committee and was involved in drafting the GMO bill, said she believes the House version can withstand any legal challenges.
"I think that the bill that we passed in the House can indeed stand on its own," she said. "We were very careful, as we crafted it, to make sure it's constitutional."
Sanders wants to add federal protections for such state laws. The senator's office said the new amendment "would make it clear that states may require clear labels that let consumers know what they're eating."
The amendment also would require the federal Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue a report within two years detailing what percentage of food and beverages contain genetically engineered ingredients.
Vermont's proposed legislation asserts that "up to 80 percent of the processed foods sold in the United States are at least partially produced from genetic engineering."
The state's bill -- labeled H.112 -- also quotes the U.S. Department of Agriculture in asserting that, as of last year, "genetically engineered soybeans accounted for 93 percent of U.S. soybean acreage, and genetically engineered corn accounted for 88 percent of U.S. corn acreage."
There is ongoing debate about whether genetically modified foods pose any health risks. Sanders' office cites "serious health concerns" and notes that the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association have approved resolutions that support GMO labeling.
The Vermont House bill acknowledges that there is a "lack of consensus" about the safety of genetically-modified foods. But the legislation goes on to detail "potential risks to health, safety, agriculture and the environment" posed by those products.
Sanders and other advocates for GMO labeling say there is growing public demand for such measures.
"All over this country, people are becoming more conscious about the foods they are eating and the foods they are serving to their kids, and this is certainly true for genetically engineered foods," Sanders said in a statement issued Wednesday. "I believe that, when a mother goes to the store and purchases food for her child, she has the right to know what she is feeding her child."
But Partridge said there remains significant opposition to GMO-labeling, and she predicted a strong lobby against any attempt to enact a federal law.
"I applaud Bernie for introducing that legislation. I think we all know that this is something that should be done at the federal level," Partridge said.
"I'm hopeful that he is successful," she added. "But I would not hold my breath."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.