by Carl Etnier
With a little over two months until Vermont’s genetically modified organism labeling law takes effect on July 1, corporations in the food business are scrambling to comply. It’s not just billion-dollar food conglomerates that must change their labels, but also little general stores that make and package egg salad and other food.
People familiar with the grocery business expect the new labels to be on the shelves generally as scheduled, but they also expect some hiccups. And it seems the law in little Vermont will affect how food is labeled in the rest of the country, or at least the northeast. What Vermonters and others will do with the new information — how it will affect their buying choices — is a multi-billion dollar experiment.
In 2014, Vermont passed the nation’s first law mandating labeling of broad classes of food that contains or may contain genetically modified organisms. The law has (so far) survived both a federal court challenge and attempts in congress to pre-empt it.
Some foods are exempt, most notably food sold to be eaten immediately (say, restaurant meals or hot soup at a deli) and food that is entirely an animal product (meat, milk, honey, etc.).
In recent months, an increasing number of large national food conglomerates have announced they are readying their Vermont-compliant labels. Jim Harrison, director of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, pointed to Kellogg’s, General Mills, Mars and ConAgra. “There’s a lot of activity going on in the food trade,” he said in an interview.
It’s not just the big players that are required to change their labeling. While large food companies are responsible for labels on most packaged food, Vermont grocers are responsible for labeling raw agricultural products (like sweet corn sold by the ear) or processed bulk food (like granola sold by the pound). When grocery stores make food in-house for retail sale, like bread loaves at an in-store bakery, the store is also responsible for the labels.
Harrison said, “Many retailers are not fully informed of what their responsibilities are.” He said his organization is holding a seminar at the end of April to educate members on what the law requires of them. He added, “There are many smaller, regional companies not necessarily located in Vermont that are just learning about the law. We’re getting calls and emails on a daily basis.”
Managers at the Montpelier Shaw’s and the Berlin Price Chopper referred all press inquiries to corporate headquarters. Neither company’s spokesperson responded before deadline for an interview about progress towards compliance; Shaw’s spokesperson Teresa Edington emailed a statement that said, “We offer a large selection of United States Department Agriculture certified organic products, which by USDA standards do not allow the use of genetically modified organism ingredients. In addition, we will continue to work diligently to ensure that our 19 Shaw’s stores located in the State of Vermont are compliant with the genetically modified organism law that takes effect on July 1, 2016.”
Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier has worked for years to pass on to customers what they know about genetic engineering in the food the store sells, according to general manager Kari Bradley. “There has been an effort to label the products certified as non-GMO. We from time to time will go around the store and update shelf labels, and even put them so they are sticking out from the shelf three dimensionally to bring attention to the fact these are certified non-GMO products.” He described it as a voluntary process using a third party to certify the product.
Still, Bradley acknowledged the store has some work to do in the areas where it will be responsible for the labels. “Our produce department happens to be almost entirely certified organic, so there’s not really an issue there. We’ve identified that our bakery is really minimal. So we’re focused on our bulk department. And where there are products containing non-organic corn, soy, canola, and the like, we have to do the work of contacting the manufacturer, asking them to verify with an affidavit — or not — whether their product contains genetic engineering. If they don’t know or don’t respond, we’re going to have to put on a ‘may contain genetic engineering’ label.”
Bradley said the store will not, initially, discontinue any product it sells that turns out to contain genetically modified organisms. However, he continued, “I think over time there will likely, in some cases, be a slowing of sales, or we may get negative feedback about certain products. Then we’ll have to make decisions about whether we’re going to continue stocking the products.”
Bradley minimized the co-op’s cost of investigating the origins of ingredients in its bulk products, saying it will take “several hours” of staff members’ time. “I don’t feel like it’s onerous on our behalf. I feel like the manufacturers bear the main liability here.”
For the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, Harrison has previously spoken against Vermont’s labeling law, arguing that it is difficult and expensive for manufacturers to change labels for a single state. Now, however, when asked about the cost to grocers of complying with the law, he describes it as a moot point. “That’s the policy of the state, enacted by the legislature. We have a very strong responsibility as the food industry to get that information together, regardless of what it costs.”
With the law about to take effect, Harrison thinks it will end up not just affecting the single state of Vermont, for the same reasons his organization initially opposed the law. “It’s really difficult, if not impossible, to label differently for different states. Many companies will label their products country-wide, or at least throughout the region.”
Harrison is not confident that the industry will be able to completely make the change by July 1, but he emphasizes its efforts to do so. “We ask customers to bear with us as we learn to comply,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be okay for July 1.”
Disclosure: Carl Etnier is a member-owner of Hunger Mountain Coop and a member of its board. The co-op is a member of Vermont Retail & Grocers Association. Etnier is also the host of “Relocalizing Vermont” on WGDR Goddard Community Radio.