MONTPELIER, Vt. — Vermont has raised the stakes in the debate over genetically modified foods by becoming the first state to pass a bill requiring that they be labeled as such in the grocery aisle, making the move despite the opposition of the powerful U.S. food industry.
Americans overwhelmingly favor such requirements for foods containing genetically modified organisms, but the industry fears a patchwork of state policies. The Vermont bill says genetically modified foods "potentially pose risks to health, safety, agriculture, and the environment" and includes $1.5 million for implementation and defense against lawsuits expected from the food and biotech industries.
The national Grocery Manufacturers Association, the food industry's main trade group, said it's evaluating how to respond. Options could include a legal challenge, labeling only foods that are sold in Vermont or making a wholesale change nationwide to avoid multiple labeling systems. On a federal level, the association has urged policymakers to support requirements for labeling only if the Food and Drug Administration finds a health or safety risk.
Organic farmers and others are praising Vermont's action, while the grocery association called it critically flawed.
Katie Spring, a farmer in the Vermont town of Worcester, says knowing what's in her food is a freedom-of-information right. She said she is proud of how she and her husband grow their food and is willing to be transparent with customers.
"As an eater and consumer myself, I want the ability to know what's in my food," she said Thursday, a day after the Vermont House approved Senate changes. Gov. Peter Shumlin said he plans to sign the bill. The requirements would take effect July 1, 2016, giving producers time to comply.
The Vermont Grocers Association is disappointed the state is going at it alone and had hoped for a regional approach. Having different state rules on food packaging "gets very costly, very confusing and very difficult for the entire food industry to comply with," said Jim Harrison, the association's president.
It's unclear how GMO labeling might affect consumers' wallets or food companies' bottom line if shoppers reject labeled foods.
In Europe, some food makers have opted to source more expensive ingredients that are not genetically engineered, said Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology project director for the Centers for Science in the Public Interest, which does not support mandatory government labeling of genetically modified foods.
Genetically modified crops have been altered to be resistant to insects, germs or herbicides. They have led to bountiful crops and food production but stirred concerns about the dominance of big agribusiness and the potential for environmental harm. Some scientists and activists worry about effects on soil health and pollination.
The FDA and an industry group known as BIO, for Biotechnology Industry Organization, say there's no material difference between food produced with genetic engineering and food produced without it. But the Vermont bill cites a lack of consensus among scientists on the safety of GMOs and no long-term epidemiological studies in the United States examining their effects.
The labels will say "produced with genetic engineering" for packaged raw foods, or "partially produced with genetic engineering" or "may be produced with genetic engineering" for processed food that contains products of genetic engineering. Meat and dairy would be exempt.
A national New York Times poll in January 2013 found that 93 percent of respondents said foods containing GMOs should be labeled. Twenty-nine other states have proposed bills recently to require GMO labeling, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
More than 60 countries require such labeling, according to the Vermont Right to Know campaign.
Some farmers in Vermont, known for its organic food operations, see the bill's passage as a David-vs.-Goliath victory.
"This vote is a reflection of years of work from a strong grass-roots base of Vermonters who take their food and food sovereignty seriously and do not take kindly to corporate bullies," Will Allen, manager of Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford, said in a statement Wednesday after the House approved the bill.