MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Vermont has raised the stakes in the debate over genetically modified foods by becoming the first state to pass a bill requiring that they be labeled as such in the grocery aisle, making the move despite the opposition of the powerful U.S. food industry.
Americans overwhelmingly favor such requirements for foods containing genetically modified organisms, but the industry fears a patchwork of state policies. The Vermont bill says genetically modified foods "potentially pose risks to health, safety, agriculture and the environment," and it includes $1.5 million for implementation and defense against lawsuits expected from the food and biotech industries.
The national Grocery Manufacturers Association, the food industry's main trade group, said it's evaluating how to respond. Options could include a legal challenge, labeling only foods sold in Vermont or making a wholesale change nationwide to avoid multiple labeling systems.
On a federal level, the association has urged policymakers to support requirements for labeling only if the Food and Drug Administration finds a health or safety risk.
On Wednesday, the Vermont House approved Senate changes to the legislation.
Gov. Peter Shumlin plans to sign the bill. The requirements would take effect July 1, 2016, giving producers time to comply.
The Vermont Grocers Association is disappointed that the state is going it alone and had hoped for a regional approach. Having different state rules on food packaging "gets very costly, very confusing and very difficult for the entire food industry to comply with," said Jim Harrison, the association's president.
It's unclear how GMO labeling might affect consumers' wallets or food companies' bottom line if shoppers reject labeled foods.
In Europe, some food makers have opted to source more expensive ingredients that are not genetically engineered, said Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology project director for the Centers for Science in the Public Interest, which does not support mandatory government labeling of genetically modified foods.
Genetically modified crops have been altered to be resistant to insects, germs or herbicides. They have led to bountiful crops and food production, but also stirred concerns about the dominance of big agribusiness and the potential for environmental harm. Some scientists and activists worry about effects on soil health and pollination.
The FDA and an industry group known as BIO, for Biotechnology Industry Organization, say there's no material difference between food produced with genetic engineering and food produced without it. But the Vermont bill cites a lack of consensus among scientists about the safety of GMOs and no long-term epidemiological studies in the United States examining their effects.
The labels will say "produced with genetic engineering" for packaged raw foods, or "partially produced with genetic engineering" or "may be produced with genetic engineering" for processed food that contains products of genetic engineering. Meat and dairy would be exempt.
Twenty-nine other states have proposed bills recently to require GMO labeling, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.