By Martin Dagoberto

from GeneWatch 29-1 | Jan-May 2016

If GMO Labeling is any indication, the "Laboratory of the States" is alive and well. Despite federal inaction, food packages bearing the words "produced with genetic engineering" are beginning to arrive on shelves across the United States as this article goes to print. Major manufacturers are choosing to label nationwide in response to the GMO labeling law slated to go into effect in Vermont on July 1, 2016. Vermont has effectively set the standard for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food ingredients and several other states are poised to join them at this critical moment in time.

Laws passed in Connecticut and Maine in 2013 set the stage for the 2014 passage of Vermont's law, but contained "trigger clauses" that delay their operation until several other states pass similar labeling requirements. Regardless of the different effective dates of the various laws, each of them contains substantially similar labeling standards and definitions .In fact, advocates in these states, as well as dozens of organizations across the country, have coordinated their efforts over the past four years with the goal of a uniform national mandatory GMO labeling standard. These groups have successfully avoided the predictions of a "patchwork quilt" of regulations frequently raised by opponents of state GMO labeling laws.

Despite this state level success, special interest forces continue to work overtime in Washington, DC to pre-empt state laws and implement a meaningless, voluntary federal standard. Fortunately, their efforts have been met by a vibrant nationwide grassroots movement of consumer advocates working together to set the expectation for labeling transparency.

Consumers have no shortage of legitimate reasons why they need to know what they're buying. As demonstrated by the recent (albeit temporary) defeat of a U.S. Senate attempt to nullify Vermont's law, the public will settle for nothing less than clear, conspicuous on-pack labeling of genetically engineered ingredients.

The standard set by Vermont states that food for human consumption offered for retail sale that is entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering (as defined by the internationally-recognized "Codex" definition) must be labeled to indicate this fact. Raw and bulk commodities will be labeled on the bin or shelf as applicable. Animal products would be labeled only if the animal itself is engineered. Also in accordance with international standards, the labeling threshold is 0.9% total weight. Due to the limitations of state legislation, current laws and proposed bills don't cover alcoholic beverages, food offered for immediate consumption, or meat and poultry products under the purview of the USDA. The responsibility for labeling will be on the manufacturer (not the retailer), who will be subject to a $1,000 per day per product penalty in Vermont.

On the same day that Vermont's Governor Shumlin signed the GMO labeling law, industry groups headed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association announced (as expected) that they would sue to stop the law. Their lawsuit relies in large part on a First Amendment challenge, alleging that the labeling requirement "imposes burdensome new speech requirements on food manufacturers and retailers." However, a preliminary injunction to delay implementation of the law was denied in federal district court in April 2015. In its decision, the court said the plaintiffs' claim of irreparable harm lacked merit and found that the "safety of food products, the protection of the environment, and the accommodation of religious belief and practices are all quintessential government interests," as is the "desire to promote informed consumer decision-making." The court also dismissed claims that Vermont's law was preempted by federal law and that it violated the Dormant Commerce Clause. The Grocery Manufacturers Association appealed the district court's decision based on the First Amendment. The appellate court's decision is pending, and the lawsuit itself could take years. Given manufacturers' recent moves to comply with Vermont's law, they do not appear confident that they will resolve it in courts before the law goes into effect in July.

GMO labeling advocates will continue to work for progress at the state level until a federal mandatory GMO labeling standard which meets or exceeds the Vermont standard is adopted .In Massachusetts, a record-breaking bipartisan coalition of state legislators has cosponsored a GMO labeling bill (155 of 200 total legislators as cosponsors). Nearly 500 local farms, businesses and organizations across the state have joined the coalition in support of the legislation. Tens of thousands of residents have made their voices heard through petitions, hearings, lobby days and call/email campaigns, and legislators are listening. The bill was passed unanimously out of its first committee in March 2016 and is awaiting a vote on the House floor before the legislative session ends in July. In Rhode Island, a GMO labeling bill has the support of nearly the entire House of Representatives and a majority of the Senate. New York, Minnesota and other states are expected to follow shortly. Labeling advocates in Connecticut are also working to remove the trigger clause that has prevented implementation up to this point. Discussions are under way in Maine about a possible ballot initiative to strip the trigger clause from the Maine law as well.

Most reforms start closest to those who are in need of them. Important reforms, demanded by citizens, are often debated, vetted, and passed on the state level where lawmakers are closer to their constituents and less influenced by industry giants and their armies of lobbyists. Only after being faced with the prospect of negotiating different laws in different states and wasting millions of dollars in uphill battles are powerful moneyed interests willing to come to the table on the national level to adopt simple reforms for the whole country. State GMO labeling campaigns have been successful for this reason: a coordinated network of grassroots activists have mobilized a diverse, passionate and vocal constituency, overwhelming the influence and reach of industry lobbyists.

Not surprisingly, transparency opponents have focused their attention on the gatekeepers who have the greatest influence on the priorities and operations of the legislature. Rank and file lawmakers may be completely on board, but if a small number of powerful legislators can prevent or delay a bill from coming up for a vote, then a majority of support doesn't count for anything. Grassroots campaigns have and will overcome such roadblocks by making inaction an undeniable political liability.

Transparency opponents will continue to cry wolf and muddy the waters, saying that "GMO labeling is meaningless and unnecessary" and even that it will somehow "destroy the food system." At the end of the day, however, consumers have demonstrated that this information is important to them, and the issue is clearly not going away. Whether or not the old adage "the customer is always right" holds water any more, the populist tenor of today's political climate is undeniable and growing. If anything, this state-led movement for food labeling transparency is a historical test of our democracy, and the more perceptive manufacturers have already begun to move in the direction the winds are blowing.

Martin Dagoberto is the Massachusetts GMO Labeling Campaign Coordinator with Citizens for GMO Labeling.

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