Under a bill gaining support in the Statehouse, Vermont could be the first state in the nation to require labels on products made with genetically modified crops.
Lawmakers are trying to craft the measure so it can withstand an expected court challenge.
The labeling bill has attracted celebrity supporters. Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream fame came to the Statehouse last week to make his pitch that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food.
"And it’s a fundamental right. Why shouldn’t we know what we’re putting into our bodies?" he asked.
Greenfield says Ben and Jerry’s products are about 80 percent free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. He says the company will transition to 100 percent non-GMO ingredients by the end of this year.
"Companies can use GMO products; they can not use GMO products, whatever they believe," he said. "Ben and Jerry’s happens to believe it doesn’t want to. But it’s not about what you like or don’t like. It’s about the consumer being able to make an informed decision."
The dozens of sponsors of the labeling bill believe it does help consumers make that informed choice.
Windham Rep. Carolyn Partridge chairs the House Agriculture Committee. If the bill passes, she expects it to be challenged in court by biotech companies or trade associations. But Partridge says lawmakers have worked to hone the legislation to withstand the inevitable legal battle.
"That’s our job here, is to create something that is defensible, that expands the state interest from beyond public curiosity to health interests to environmental interests," she said.
To show a compelling state interest, lawmakers make the case that the federal government is not doing an adequate job of fully informing the consumer.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not mandate disclosure of genetically modified ingredients. Robert Merker, a consumer safety officer with the FDA, testified by phone that GMO products may contain extra proteins. But Merker says those proteins are digested and are usually safe for people. So he said there’s often no substantive difference between GMO and non-GMO products.
"It’s fair to say that FDA cannot require things to be labeled differently unless there is a material difference between them," he said.
The farm community is divided on the issue. Organic farmers support the disclosure language while many mainstream farm organizations are opposed. The bill exempts dairy products, but some dairy producers still don’t like it. Lobbyist Margaret Laggis represents two dairy groups fighting the bill.
"The question is where does it stop? For consumers who are interested and who are concerned they can find foods that can meet their needs today," she said.
The House Agriculture Committee continues work on the bill this week.