Vermont is the only U.S. state to have mandatory labeling of food produced using genetic engineering.

And it appears to be paying off.

According to a paper, “How Consumers Use Mandatory Genetic Engineering (GE) Labels: Evidence from Vermont,” the progress is notable.

Authors Jane Kolodinsky, Sean Morris and Orest Pazuniak note that using a representative sample of adults who experienced Vermont’s mandatory GE labeling policy, nearly one-third of respondents reported seeing a label.

And those labels had an effect.

The study used data from a survey of Vermont residents conducted in fall 2016 and spring 2017. A total of 1,034 responses were collected. This is the only study examining the effect of a mandatory GE labeling policy in the United States.

Higher-income, younger consumers who search for information about genetic engineering were more likely to report seeing a label. They also estimated whether labels served as information cues that helped reveal consumer preferences through purchases, or whether labels served as a signal that influenced preferences and purchases.

Vermonters are paying attention.

For 50.5 percent of consumers who saw a label, it served as an information cue that revealed their preferences. For 13 percent of those who saw the label, the label influenced preferences and behavior. Overall, for 4 percent of the total sample group, simple disclosures influenced preferences.

“Labels play a significant role in facilitating consumer choice in the case of credence goods; goods for which consumers cannot determine through search nor experience whether a product contains an attribute or quality they prefer,” the authors wrote in the study.

It has been asserted that “produced using genetic engineering” labels not only provide consumers with information, but may also send a signal that influences preferences.

The debate over the labeling has been a hot topic

Vermont’s law went into effect on July 1, 2016, to much fanfare and controversy.

At the time, grocery retailers complained the law was confusing, and Vermont’s Orthodox Jewish community expressed concern that kosher foods were disappearing from grocery shelves as a result of the law.

Then-President Barack Obama signed a national standard for GMO labeling into law, rendering Vermont’s law moot. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had two years to finalize the new national standards for GMO labeling. The federal law was widely seen by Vermont advocates of labeling as an effort to weaken the standards Vermont put in place this year.

The Vermont law required clear labeling, in English, on the package of items containing GMOs. The national standard gives companies the option of providing only a QR code to be read by smartphones, or a toll-free number to call for more information.

While federal labeling legislation superseded all pending state legislation, labels on packaged goods persisted for months and are still seen on a variety of food packaging. In early May 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its set of proposed disclosure labeling rules for genetically modified foods. These proposed rules include five main disclosure alternatives, only one of which is a simple text disclosure on packaging — much akin to the Vermont law.

In Vermont, label-looking was already in place — consumers were already on board.

The study shows that purchase decisions were not affected for about one-third of respondents who saw the labels. An FDA study found that 57 percent of people who don’t use labels “buy what their family likes.” This study was not out of line with those trends.

Now, as a result of the Vermont results, there are new questions about how best to move forward.

As the U.S. government moves ahead with the implementation of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, the study shows that a slight majority of respondents wanted more information.

Simple disclosures on labels are only one of five proposed ways to provide consumers with information. Websites listing more information, phone numbers on packaging to call or text message for product information, “scan here for more information”-type QR codes, and “Bioengineered” icons are also proposed.

U.S. consumers will be increasingly able to make choices about consumption of genetically engineered foods with the implementation of mandatory labeling of products produced using GE, expected in 2020. Consumers need information in order to make utility-maximizing decisions in the marketplace.

Vermonters set the trend, and got the first law into place. And the early evidence, based on our choices in stores, is we are practicing what we preach.

The authors wrote, “Based on evidence from the only policy initiative in the U.S. that required mandatory GE labels, we conclude that simple disclosures work.”

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