Vermont legislated mandatory special labelling for food treated with Genetically Modified Organisms.  The labels must warn consumers that foods within the package were treated with GMO nutrients. 

Connecticut and Maine enacted similar labelling mandates, but their laws are contingent on a critical mass of nearby states enacting similar laws.  These trigger clauses are intended to delay the onset of inevitable lawsuits (and share anticipated costs of defending the laws), but Vermont acted without a trigger clause and as expected, it was sued by food industry groups.  The food groups say Vermont’s law “usurps federal regulatory authority and negatively affects interstate commerce.” 

The more important issue for consumers is that there are no significant studies identifying GMO-treated foods as detrimental to health.  Studies that reveal GMO-treated food safety are rejected out of hand because “there aren’t any long term independent studies that haven’t been funded by industry which establish the health and safety of genetically engineered foods” – a lame attempt to avoid the honest work of proving whether there actually is some harm. 

Vermont avoided special labels warning consumers of potential harms from meats and milk from animals that consumed GMO-treated nutrients, or from foods grown with help from chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, herbicides or insecticides.  Instead it singled out GMO-treated foods for unique punishment.  

There may be far more retail goods affected than the legislature imagined.  The legislature seemed unaware that on today’s supermarket shelves, 75% of processed foods, 85% corn and 91% of soybeans are genetically modified.  Even farmers markets may need to host labelling parties for their corn and soybeans in order to comply.

Contrary to the disingenuous claims of GMO opponents, special labelling is a punishment, not just helpful information for consumers.  If “GMO-treated” were approached with the same emotional neutrality as calorie, protein, fat and sodium quantities, it could be included with the existing consumer information labels on foods.  But that was not garish enough for Vermont.  Instead, it ordered a mandatory special label – which is a punishment because “the label mandate sends the signal to consumers that the government believes the GMO critics are correct and have won this debate.”   

The enforcement funds from states intending GMO labelling would serve consumers better if they were spent on honest scientific studies of GMO consumer safety.  That is the missing ingredient consumers deserve and that legislators should insist on before any mandate to label.   Requiring special labelling is a premature tool for GMO opponents to convince consumers there’s something amiss.  Vermont has failed the consumer.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research