Vermont residents might have to go hungry — or drive into New Hampshire, upstate New York, or even Boston, for food — because of their state’s new GMO (genetically modified organisms) labeling law that takes effect July 1, 2016. At the very least, they might have to say goodbye to an American icon of corporate cuisine creationism that contains not one drop of nutrition, the Twinkie.
Claiming “enormous challenges” and fines of up to “$250,000 per day,” the Grocery Manufacturers Association sent a letter to Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, pleading with him to stop the new law.
The multi-billion dollar Washington-based lobbying group suggested the burden on food manufacturers of complying with the new GMO labeling law, Act 120, might be so onerous as to prevent food companies from selling their food in Vermont.
Pamela G. Bailey, the president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, wrote in the June 18 letter to Gov. Shumlin that the costs to change labels and supply chain systems could be so great that her group’s members would actually lose money by stocking food on grocery store shelves in Vermont.
She cited a clause in the law that holds food manufacturers liable for fines of $1,000 a day if a mislabeled product is found on Vermont shelves, even if the manufacturer was not responsible for it being in the store.
Bailey explained that with national food supply chains, even with the best of intentions, excellent supply chain logistics and herculean efforts, 5 percent to 10 percent of products might be mislabeled in stores at any given time.
“Vermont’s law imposes a $1,000 daily fine for each item that does not bear the legally designated label,” Bailey wrote. “We estimate that industry wide, there could be over 100,000 items sold in Vermont that would require Vermont-specific labels. That means our industry could be facing fines as much as $10 million per day.”
When Ronnie Cummins, the international director of the Organic Consumers Association, heard about Bailey’s letter, he said it was “indicative of increasing desperation.”
“The GMA’s letter takes hyperbole to a new height of ridiculousness,” said Cummins. “That’s why the OCA has called on consumers across the country to thank Gov. Shumlin for having the courage to stand up to Monsanto, and to challenge the junk food industry to go ahead, stop selling your toxic Twinkies in Vermont.”
Even reminding Gov. Shumlin of the national outbreak of hoarding, desperation and outrage that erupted when Twinkies disappeared from store shelves after Hostess Brands went bankrupt in 2012 would probably not be enough to get the Democrat to change his mind.
“Vermonters take our food and how it is produced seriously, and we believe we have a right to know what’s in the food we buy,” Gov. Shumlin told the crowd gathered on the State House lawn to watch him sign the GMO labeling law in May 2014. “I am proud that we’re leading the way in the United States to require labeling of genetically engineered food. More than 60 countries have already restricted or labeled these foods, and now one state – Vermont — will also ensure that we know what’s in the food we buy and serve our families.”
Not counting on a radical change of heart from Gov. Shumlin, the Grocery Manufacturers Association is in a legal full-court press after a federal court rejected a bid by the GMA to stop Vermont’s GMO labeling law in April.
Bailey said the GMA would appeal the court ruling and continue to press its case that forcing manufacturers to slap GMO labels on their products would be a violation of their First Amendment rights.
“Act 120 imposes burdensome new speech requirements – and restrictions – that will affect, by Vermont’s count, eight out of every ten foods at the grocery store. Yet Vermont has effectively conceded this law has no basis in health, safety, or science,” GMA spokesman Brian Kennedy said when the organization filed suit to stop the Vermont law in 2014.
“That is why a number of product categories, including milk, meat, restaurant items and alcohol, are exempt from the law. This means that many foods containing GMO ingredients will not actually disclose that fact,” he added.
However, Bailey said the Grocery Manufacturers Association would be willing to accept federal GMO labeling regulations if only because her group’s members would not have to worry about a patchwork of state-by-state regulations.
The House Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee held a hearing June 18 on legislation that would set uniform, science-based food labeling standards.
Industry testimony at the hearing on the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act warned of the higher food costs and greater consumer confusion from a range of different state labeling mandates and highlighted the need for a uniform national labeling standard.
The federal law on GMO labeling would set a national standard and preempt state laws such as the one in Vermont. If there has to be a law, Bailey said this would be preferable.
“This legislation to protect our national food labeling system has strong bipartisan support, and we are pleased to see congressional committees holding hearings on the bill to understand the issues,” Bailey said. “It is vitally important that the committees move this bill forward so it can be considered and passed by the House this summer and then in the Senate as soon as possible.”