Vermont is poised to become the first state in the country to require the labeling of food products made with genetically modified organisms.
After nearly two hours of debate, a strong bipartisan coalition of senators gave their preliminary approval to the bill by a vote of 26 to 2.
Under the bill, the labeling requirements would go into place in July of 2016 and would affect virtually all food products sold in Vermont.
Backers of the plan like Windsor Sen. Dick McCormack said the legislation was not an indictment of the science of genetic engineering. Instead, he described the bill as a basic consumer right-to-know issue.
“The question that this bill addresses is not the safety or danger of genetically modified organisms in any case,” said McCormack. “The question the bill addresses is the right to know.”
Caledonia Sen. Joe Benning told his colleagues that he often inspects food labels to learn about their carbohydrate levels. Benning says he does this because he has a much easier time losing weight when he restricts his intake of carb heavy foods.
“So the question for me, Mr. President, is 'do I have the right to deny them the way to look at a label the same way that I do for carbohydrates, and determine whether or not there is something in there that might or might not affect how their body might react?'" Benning asked. "And I believe the answer is yes.”
Two other New England states, Maine and Connecticut, have passed GMO labeling bills. But those laws don’t go into effect until a number of other states have enacted similar legislation. That has been done, in part, as a way to share legal fees if the laws are challenged in court.
The Senate bill doesn’t need the approval of any other state before becoming law. Senate Judiciary committee chairman Dick Sears thinks Vermont will be in good shape if the state is sued.
“We felt that the bill that we’re representing today to the Vermont Senate is defensible, number one,” said Sears. “Number two, we felt that a trigger of some future date and relying on other states was not in our best interest. That it was in our best interest to go forward and hope that other states would follow Vermont.”
The bill passed by a vote of 26 to two. One of the dissenting votes came from Franklin Sen. Norm McAllister who is a former dairy farmer. McAllister says he’s used a variety of GMO products over the years and never had any problems.
He thinks some backers of the bill have misled the public about possible health concerns associated with the use of GMOs.
“This is a misinformation that the public has had. At our public hearing we heard from people who were making statements that even we knew were incorrect,” said McAllister. “It was a scare tactic as far as I’m concerned and that’s why I don’t support it.”
Because the Senate bill is similar to legislation passed by the House last year, it’s possible that House leaders will accept the Senate version and then send the bill to the governor. Or they might ask for a conference committee to negotiate some of their differences with the Senate bill.