Food firms press to stop Vermont law

June 17, 2016 GMT

Food industry leaders are forecasting calamity if a Vermont food labeling law takes effect two weeks from today.

Beginning July 1, Vermont will require food products containing ingredients from genetically modified organisms to carry labels that say so.

“This is the most important issue currently facing America’s food producing community, and one that could do significant harm to our nation’s entire food value chain,” Chuck Conner, chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said Thursday during a media conference call.

“The consumer will be confused, there will be chaos in the marketplace, farmers will be hurt,” said Pamela Bailey, chief executive of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Bailey and Conner are co-chairs of the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, which represents more than 800 food and beverage producers, sellers and trade groups.

The coalition is pressing Congress to approve legislation that would override the Vermont statute and establish a uniform, national labeling standard.

But Senate negotiators are still in talks about a bill, and the House is scheduled to be in session for just four days next week before taking a break until July 5.

Also, the food industry coalition opposes mandatory GMO labels.

“We believe these on-package labels don’t provide consumers with any useful information, they will be seen as a warning, and they will be used to stigmatize perfectly safe food and beverage products,” Bailey said.

The group instead prefers that food packages have scannable codes, phone numbers or website links that consumers could access to learn about GMO content.

“We’re looking for a solution that will give consumers more product information than would ever be possible on a label,” Leslie Sarasin, chief executive of the Food Marketing Institute, said during the conference call.

Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, which supports mandatory GMO labeling, said the food industry coalition appeared to contradict itself.

“Today’s strange statement first endorsing mandatory, and later opposing mandatory, GMO labeling will make it harder for Congress to craft a national GMO labeling solution,” Faber said in an email. “Any solution must be national, mandatory, and allow consumers to identify foods derived from genetic engineering at a glance.”

The coalition’s Conner said food companies have been removing GMO ingredients from some products in advance of the Vermont law, and he predicted more will follow suit.

“Markets for the crops that our farmers are growing today will be lost, and the value of crops will be diminished,” he said.

Steve Censky, chief executive of the American Soybean Association, said the Vermont law will serve to discourage consumption of GMO products that have been proven safe.

“Anti-GMO activists have made clear that they will use these labels to scare consumers and drive biotechnology from the marketplace, just as they’ve done in Europe,” Censky said during the conference call. “Years of agriculture innovation and progress will be lost, forcing America’s farmers to turn back the clock.”

He said more than 90 percent of soybeans, corn, cotton and sugar beets grown in America are genetically engineered to protect them from pests and disease.

“We’re on the verge of having one state, with a bit over 600,000 people, dictate nationwide food policy and the stigmatization of biotechnology through on-pack labeling,” Censky said.

Bailey said a “patchwork” of state laws – GMO labeling legislation has been passed or is under consideration in other Northeastern states – would drive up food prices by increasing the costs of packaging and ingredient sourcing.