Notes from Montpelier: Watch for misinformation as labeling law nears
This past week, a number of State Representatives and Senators paid a lot of attention to proceedings in Washington, DC. The so-called "Dark Act" was up for action.
In the spring of 2014, the Vermont Legislature passed, and Gov. Peter Shumlin signed, what became Act 120, an act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering. We allowed two years for the act to become effective and that date is rapidly approaching – July 1, 2016.
Shortly after the bill signing, the State of Vermont was sued by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association, and National Association of Manufacturers on the grounds that we have violated their First Amendment rights. The case is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. So far, we have won the court challenges and the perception is that we may continue to win, given the recent actions in Washington, DC.
As time grew nearer for enactment of Act 120 and there seemed to be a recognition that it would hold up in court, pressure was put on some members of the U.S. Senate to pass a bill that would preempt our labeling requirement. This has been known as the "Dark Act" because the goal is to prevent people from knowing if their food is produced with genetic engineering.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry put in a Chairman's Mark, creating a bill that would preempt our law. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., put in his own bill protecting Vermont's labeling requirement. A Senatorial "hold" was placed on the bill, which then required a cloture vote with at least 60 affirmative votes to pass. This past week the final tally was 49-48 so the bill failed and supporters of labeling were jubilant.
This is definitely something to celebrate but it is important to be vigilant because Senator Robert's language may very well show up in a much larger bill that will be hard for legislators to vote against.
Other compromise proposals have included a QR (quick response) code on the packaging that would require a smart phone or other such device to read. That certainly does not make the labeling universally accessible to all consumers, especially ones who can't afford or don't want to deal with these devices.
Part of Senator Roberts' presentation on the Senate Floor included information that is meant to scare consumers. Estimates were made in a study for the Corn Refiners Association, titled "Cost Impact of Vermont's GMO Labeling Law on Consumers Nationwide," that it will cost every American family over $1,000 per year if the Vermont law goes into effect on July 1, 2016. It should be noted that an estimated 88 percent of the corn grown in the United States is genetically-engineered so the Corn Refiners have a vested interest in the results of this study.
Assumptions are made in the study that are just plain wrong. It assumes that only non-genetically-engineered food could be sold in Vermont, so that every product would have to be reformulated everywhere else in the United States. Another false assumption is that food manufacturers would have to produce multiple versions of their products. All that is required is a label, not different versions of products.
Another assumption is that product reformulation would occur because consumers would be scared by the GE label. This has not been the case in other countries (64 other countries do require the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering), in fact, in some cases consumers were more likely to buy the products. In other studies, it was found that consumers' concern was not increased by the label and that shoppers were likely to consider the price and calories more than anything else.
The charge that relabeling will cost companies, and hence consumers, a lot of money is just not accurate. Labels are changed all the time – just take a look at soda cans and cereal boxes that change based on the sports/holiday season. It should not be a problem, especially, for the multi-nationals that sell their products in the 64 other countries that require labeling because they are already doing it. There has also been plenty of lead-time available for smaller companies to make the required changes.
In 2012, California held a referendum vote on the issue of labeling, which lost by a slim, 3 percent margin. What is interesting is that the money spent by the companies opposed to labeling was a staggering $46 million in contrast to the donations made by the supporters – $9.2 million. Increased prices were part of the scare tactics used there as well, but my understanding is that one of the assumptions was that every family would replace the genetically-engineered products they consume with certified organic food that costs more.
Who made those contributions opposing labeling? The top 10 contributors were Monsanto, which spent over $8 million; E.I. Dupont De Nemours & Co. – $5.4 million; PepsiCo Inc. – over $2.5 million; Grocery Manufacturers Association – over $2 million; Kraft Foods, BASF Plant Science, Bayer Cropscience, Dow AgroSciences, and Syngenta – each $2 million; and Coca-Cola North America – over $1.7 million.
As we get closer to the July 1 date for labeling, prepare to hear more outrageous claims backed up by studies paid for by the very entities who don't want to label. The good news is that several companies, including Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, and Ben and Jerry's have all said they will label. In fact, Ben and Jerry's is doing its best to reformulate but said in testimony before the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee in 2012 and 2013 that they were in total support of labeling even if reformulating was not possible.
State Rep. Carolyn Partridge , D-Windham, welcomes emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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