Vermont to delay citizen right to sue over GMO labels

Consumers will not be allowed to sue over companies’ failure to label GMO foods until next summer, Vermont legislators decided, with the state’s first-in-the-nation label law taking effect July 1.

In the final days of their session, Vermont legislators attached a rider to the omnibus budget bill that delays to July 1, 2017, the citizen “right of action” against companies that do not comply with the label law, said Vermont Digger. “Store owners were concerned that they could face legal action for products without GMO labels that were distributed before the law kicks in.” State Attorney General William Sorrell says the state will allow a six-month grace period for compliance.

The language delaying the citizen right to sue was written in consultations among Sorrell’s office, Vermont grocers and proponents of the label law, said the Digger. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group said the rider does not significantly alter the labeling law.

In related news, discussions in Congress over nationwide GMO labeling standards may be affected by a National Academy of Sciences report to be issued today on the economic, agronomic, health, safety and other effects of genetically engineered foods, which entered the marketplace two decades ago.

“This report is intended to provide an independent, objective examination of what has been learned since the introduction of GE crops based on current evidence,” says NAS. A panel of experts began work in 2014, long before GMO labeling blossomed into a national policy debate and heightened by election-year tensions. In spelling out the scope of the study, NAS said, “The committee will produce a report directed at policymakers that will serve as the basis for derivative products designed for a lay audience.”

Some of the largest U.S. foodmakers — Campbell Soup, Mars, Kellogg, ConAgra, General Mills and Dannon — have announced they will label their products nationwide to minimize the cost of complying with the Vermont law. When GMO foods were cleared for agricultural production in the 1990s, the federal government said they were safe and that labeling was not necessary.

In Washington, the Senate has been at an impasse since the defeat (48-49 with 60 votes needed for passage) on March 15 of a bill to pre-empt state label laws and keep labeling voluntary on the national level. Labeling would have become mandatory if less than 70 percent of GMO products were not voluntarily labeled within three years.

“I will continue to work with ranking member [Debbie] Stabenow and others to reach a compromise that can get 60 votes,” said Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts. “The clock is ticking and that’s why I put forth a compromise bill in March.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group, says a broad coalition of farm and industry groups “has been continuing to talk about the need for action by the Senate to address” the Vermont law. GMA prefers a “smart label,” which uses QR codes, scannable by smartphones, to provide information about food ingredients. The labeling campaign says it wants wording on packages. Stabenow has called for mandatory nationwide disclosure.

“Many outside groups continue to pressure Congress to enact legislation that would create federal GMO labeling standards that would pre-empt any state from creating its own standards,” said the National Law Review. Stabenow “has drafted legislation to address this issue. The exact text remains unknown to the general public … Sen. Stabenow has been very clear that her intent is to protect manufacturers from the burdensome maze of requirements she believes would result from a patchwork of state laws, and to provide consumers with reliable, scientific-based product ingredient information.”

The NAS is scheduled to release its report, “Genetically engineered crops, experiences and prospects,” today at 11 a.m. ET. To see the report or to watch a webcast, click here.