MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval Tuesday to legislation that requires foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such.
The 26-2 vote sets Vermont on a course to become the first state to require labeling of GMOs. The House passed a similar version of the bill, H.112, last year.
The legislation passed by the Senate would take effect July 1, 2016; the House version would kick in July 1 of this year.
Two other states — Connecticut and Maine — have passed labeling laws, but theirs require other states to do the same before they take effect.
Three state Senate committees — Agriculture, Judiciary and Appropriations — worked to craft a bill that will provide Vermonters more information about the foods they eat. Committee members also looked to make the proposed law as defensible in court as possible. It is widely believed that the first state to enact a GMO labeling bill will be sued.
Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, vice chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said labeling will be the responsibility of the producer.
“We made it clear that the labeling requirement is on the manufacturer of the food, on the processed, packaged food. It’s not the retail store obligation to label what is and what’s not,” he told his colleagues.
He said food manufacturers that do not want to carry a label indicating that GMOs may be present will need to secure affidavits from the suppliers of their ingredients stating they are free of GMOs.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his panel “tried to make sure that as best as possible the state would be able to defend against a potential lawsuit.”
He said if the courts strike down the law they would be saying “the consumer doesn’t have a right to know what’s in their food.”
The Judiciary Committee added to the legislation a special fund that is aimed at helping the state defend the law. Sears said Attorney General William Sorrell has estimated it would cost at least $1 million to fight an industry lawsuit.
The fund would accept private donations but could also be filled with settlement money secured by the attorney general’s office.
“There is no way that we can say, No. 1, that we would prevail should we be sued, but I think we have given ourselves the best opportunity to prevail, should it arise,” Sears said.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, asked if the attorney general had figured the odds of prevailing in court should the state be sued.
“I don’t believe the attorney general is a gambler,” Sears replied. “I don’t know how he could develop odds any more than we can.”
However, Sears said if the state loses it could cost between $5 million and $8 million if it has to pay the legal fees of the prevailing party.
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, one of two senators to vote against the bill, noted that several groups, including the World Health Organization and the National Academy of Sciences, have “said that there’s no scientific justification for special labels.”
Flory asked if the three committees that reviewed the bill considered labeling the 20 percent or so of food products that do not contain GMOs, rather than the overwhelming majority of products that do.
Zuckerman said that would be problematic because there is currently no agreed-upon definition of a natural product. And he said “the cost to determine something does not contain GMOs … is actually more expensive than the other way.”
Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, also voted against the bill. He said people have the right to know what is in their food but that the bill wouldn’t accomplish that.
McAllister, a farmer, said he uses GMO products because he believes they are environmentally safer. He said the passionate opposition to GMOs stems from “misinformation that the public heard.”
“That’s what they’ve been told, or that’s what they’ve heard,” he said. “It’s a scare tactic, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s why I don’t support it.”
Advocates, some of whom have worked for decades to pass such legislation, hailed the Senate vote as a major victory.
“Today the Senate stood up for the vast majority of Vermonters who want to see genetically engineered foods labeled,” said Falko Schilling, a consumer protection advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “Vermont is once again leading the nation by acknowledging the important fact that everyone has a right to know what they are eating.”
Andrea Stander, director of Rural Vermont, also hailed the vote.
“This is a victory for everyone who eats,” Stander said. “It is fitting that Vermont, where we take food seriously, is on the way to becoming the first state in the U.S. to require that genetically engineered foods be labeled.”
The bill is up for final approval in the Senate today before heading back to the House, where minor differences between the two versions must be reconciled.
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