Vermont prepared to risk $8 million over ‘may contain GMO’ label

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A GMO food-labeling bill overwhelmingly OK’d in the Senate this week may not inform consumers about what’s in their food. It will, however, expose Vermont to a possible $8 million lawsuit.

GMO MANIA: Vermont is on track to become the first state to require mandatory labeling of suspected GMO foods.

The Senate on Tuesday voted 26-2 in favor of an amended GMO bill that requires processed food manufacturers to label products suspected of containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Despite the bill’s lofty aims, labels on processed foods will say only that products “may be” partially produced with genetic engineering — leaving consumers in the dark on whether foods actually contain GMO.

During the Senate report on H.112, the bill’s chief backers were forced to clarify the point.

“It would be quite expensive and too onerous to require every manufacturer of every product to test every ingredient to put a definitive ‘this does’ or ‘this does not’ (contain GMO),” said state Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden.

That comment raised the ire of state Sen. Margaret Flory, R-Rutland, who wondered how the bill would be of any use to consumers.

“A company doesn’t have to know if it’s GMO? They can simply put on the label, ‘This may contain GMO products’?” Flory asked.

“Sure, just like they do with other things,” Zuckerman replied. “… It’s not a requirement of any company to ascertain all the different ingredients.”

“If this law is intended to say we have a right to know what we eat, how does it achieve that if everybody can put ‘this may contain GMO’?” Flory inquired further.

“It’s really up to the product manufacturer,” Zuckerman replied.

Prior to approving the bill, senators said the state would need a legal defense fund to defend the dubious warning label in court.

“We heard testimony from the assistant attorney general that the estimate is between $5 million and $8 million should we lose and be required to pay attorneys fees and other court costs,” said state Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington.

The bill calls for the creation of a $1.5 million legal fund for genetically engineered food labeling. Money for the fund would be generated through settlements with the attorney general’s office, as well as from private and public donations and grants.

Sears told colleagues that constituents are lining up to support the state’s looming legal battle.

“I had one e-mail from a constituent who said, ‘Grow some backbone and vote for this bill and we’ll send you all kinds of money,’” the senator said while reporting on the bill.

State Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, found the fund highly objectionable.

“It looks like Vermont is for sale, and that people can give a large chunk of money, and that the money can be deposited into a fund for lawsuits. I don’t recall ever opening the door like this before,” he said.

Despite controversy surrounding GMOs, H.112 doesn’t determine whether genetically modified foods present a real danger to consumers.

“The question that this bill addresses is not the safety or danger of genetically modified organisms. The question the bill addresses is the right to know,” said state Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor.

“If there are people who have suspicions that GMOs are not healthy for them, even if it turns out that scientifically they are wrong — which we don’t know, because no one has ever proven their safety — it’s their bodies, it’s their right to know,” McCormack said.

Flory said she found it “disturbing” her colleagues would place warnings on foods the World Health Organization, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and American Medical Association say are safe. She was equally concerned the labels might not tell consumers that specific food items actually contain GMO.

GMO labeling is among the most popular bills in Vermont. The Castleton Polling Institute found that 79 percent of Vermonters support GMO warning labels.

Some senators who voted for the bill said they were responding to the demands of their constituents.

“I did not have my mind made up. But after weeks of testimony, it was very clear and obvious that the people we represent, who send us here, definitely wanted this bill passed,” said state Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans.

Others warned that Vermont was risking a legal rebuke reminiscent of the state’s crushing court loss over milk produced from cows on synthetic growth hormones.

Mullin, who ultimately voted for the bill, expressed worries over a high-stakes court battle.

“It’s troublesome that we have language creating a defense fund. It seems we should be crafting a bill that is defensible on its own merits rather than setting up a fund that will pay for possibly one more loss.”

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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