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Label News: United we stand, divided we label

By Catherine Diamond, Associate Editor | April 22, 2014

Several states are moving forward with plans to label genetically modified foods, but would a singular, federal standard be best for consumers?

As of this writing, there are more than 60 initiatives in 23 states that either would require the labeling of genetically modified foods or prohibit the sale of genetically engineered foods. Most recently, the Vermont Senate passed a bill to its Senate Appropriations Committee that would require the labeling of any and all genetically engineered foods. If Governor Peter Shumlin signs the bill, which he has indicated he most likely will, Vermont would be the first state in the country to enact such a law.

Connecticut and Maine have also passed GMO labeling laws, but the legislation in each of those states requires that four neighboring states pass similar laws before it takes effect. The provision was largely seen as a way to prevent these states from carrying the (incredibly costly) burden of a potential lawsuit from large food manufacturers, though it also has the potential to keep things simple for local converters. If a can of corn is being sold in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, the local manufacturer and converter won't have to produce several labels for each product. 

The legislation in Vermont would require foods with genetically modified ingredients sold in Vermont stores to be labeled starting July

2016. The primary motivation behind labeling genetically modified foods is, to no surprise, fear. Genetically modified foods haven't been around too long, so no one can say with any certainty whether or not they are harmful. They have been designed to make crops less vulnerable to disease and infestation, and also to extend the shelf life of certain foods. Opponents of genetically modified foods argue that, until the effects of the modifications - which are often chemicals - are known, consumers should be allowed to choose whether or not to eat them. 

"We are saying people have a right to know what's in their food," Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell said in Montpelier last week.

While states are taking initiatives to label GMO foods, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act was introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this month. The legislation would require the Food and Drug Administration to "review the safety of a product before it enters the marketplace, putting into law a process that is currently voluntary but widely used by food companies." It would require the FDA to label foods with genetically modified ingredients if they are found to be unsafe. (One can only assume that if the genetically modified ingredients have not yet been found to be unsafe, they will not have to be labeled.)

According to Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who drafted the measure along with Rep. Mike Pompeo, the bill is designed to prevent a "mishmash of labeling standards and allows farmers to continue to produce higher yields of healthy crops in smaller spaces with less water and fewer pesticides. If passed, this will be a big win for farmers nationwide."

Because this legislation would be enacted at the federal level, it effectively bans individual states from establishing their own standards for genetically modified foods or requiring that they be labeled based on certain criteria. Opponents of this bill say, at best, it doesn't go far enough. At worst, they say it is akin to punishing whistleblowers. 

We at L&NW want to know what you think about this issue, as both consumers and converters. Do you believe that individual states should maintain the right to label genetically modified foods, or do you believe the federal government should step in with a uniform regulation? Leave us a comment below!

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