MONTPELIER – The House on Wednesday propelled to the governor's desk a bill that could make Vermont the first state to require labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms.
The bill passed the house with a 114-30 vote.
For supporters of the labeling requirement, Wednesday's vote was another step in a decade-long effort they hope will sweep across the country.
"Our constituents have spoken. They feel it's important to know what's in their food," said House Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham.
"I think this is the right thing to do whether we're being threatened with a lawsuit or not," said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney.
Gov. Peter Shumlin indicated he would sign the bill.
"I am proud of Vermont for being the first state in the nation to ensure that Vermonters will know what is in their food. The Legislature has spoken loud and clear through its passage of this bill," Shumlin said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "I wholeheartedly agree with them and look forward to signing this bill into law.
Rep. Carolyn Branagan, R-Franklin, asks a question about the proposed genetically modified organisms labeling bill before Wednesday’s vote at the Statehouse. The House voted 114-30 to move forward a bill that could make Vermont the first state to require labeling of foods that contain GMOs. (Photo: EMILY McMANAMY/FREE PRESS)
Wednesday's House vote, after a 35-minute debate, was to go along with changes the Senate made to a bill the House passed last year. Among the changes the Senate made was establishing a fund of up to $1.5 million to help pay for the state's defense against an anticipated lawsuit, to which people may contribute voluntarily and to which money the attorney general wins in other court settlements may be added. Legal costs are estimated at $5 million to $8 million if the state loses a lawsuit.
Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, told House members that other changes the Senate made will help the state prevail n court. "This bill has been re-engineered to be more resistant to legal challenge," he said.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, said the threat of a lawsuit gave her pause but that her constituents seem to support that risk. She voted for the bill.
"I have extreme misgivings about going forward with something that has a high likelihood of costing the state money," she said.
"That's the concern for many of us," said Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, who voted against the bill. "Some believe taxpayers are in favor of that. I'm not sure they all know about it."
The bill would require labeling as of July 1, 2016, on many food products that contain genetically modified ingredients, which often includes corn and soy. Food manufacturers say some 70-80 percent of packaged food on a typical supermarket's store shelves would need to be labeled. The bill grants the Attorney General's Office the job of establishing rules surrounding the labels.
Legislators talk before Wednesday’s House vote on whether to support a bill that could make Vermont the first state to require labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms. The House voted 114-30 in support of the bill. (Photo: EMILY McMANAMY/FREE PRESS)
Genetically modified organisms are plants and animals whose cells have been inserted with a gene from an unrelated species to give them specific characteristics, such as resistance to insects or increase specific nutrients. Genetically engineered plants has been in the food supply since the 1990s.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers foods with genetic modification substantially similar to those without. Critics argue that a growing body of research raises questions about long-term health effects of the process.
Legislation in Vermont seeking to halt the use of genetically modified seeds, to establish a labeling requirement for those seeds and the food they produce and to protect farmers from liability related to GMO seeds dates back more than a decade. Supporters of the food labeling bill hope their efforts will clear the way for other states to do the same. "As Vermont goes, so goes the nation," said Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, lead sponsor of the bill.
Labeling is required in 64 countries, including the European Union, but no U.S. states. Connecticut and Maine have passed labeling laws that would go into effect only when a collection of neighboring states passes similar laws. Vermont lawmakers rejected that route.
Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 999-9994 or firstname.lastname@example.org
GMO labeling bill
• THE BILL: To read H.112, the GMO labeling bill, visit http://tiny.cc/8jesex.
• WHAT THE BILL DOES: Requires food manufacturers to label many products containing genetically modified organisms that are sold in Vermont starting July 1, 2016. Meat, dairy, liquor and prepared food sold in restaurants are exempt from labeling.
• WHAT THE LABEL WOULD SAY: The bill offers three options for wording: "partially produced with genetic engineering," "may be produced with genetic engineering," or "produced with genetic engineering."
• BILL'S JOURNEY: H. 112 was introduced in the House in January 2013, passed the House on May 10 by a vote of 99-42, just before the Legislature adjourned for the year. The bill was introduced Jan. 7 in the Senate when the Legislature reconvened. The Senate Agriculture and Judiciary committees reworked the bill. The revised version passed the Senate on April 16 by a vote of 28-2. The House concurred with the Senate's changes with Wednesday's vote of 114-30. The bill goes to Gov. Peter Shumlin to be signed into law sometime in the next week or so.
Originally published: The Burlington Free Press.