New federal law preempts Vermont’s efforts to regulate GMO labeling

In an effort to streamline laws regarding the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering (GE), President Obama signed into law S. 764, the first federal law to require labeling of genetically modified ingredients. The legislation will require most food products to bear a text label, a symbol, or an electronic code readable by smartphone that allows consumers to determine whether a food contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The law undercuts efforts by the state of Vermont to require specific labeling on foods produced with GE.

Federal law seeks to streamline labeling requirements

The federal law calls upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard. The USDA has two years to draft regulations to implement the labeling standard. S. 764 explicitly preempts state laws, such as Act 120, by prohibiting individual states from continuing “in effect as to any food or seed in interstate commerce any requirement relating to the labeling of whether a food . . . or seed is genetically engineered.”

With the signing of S. 764, the Vermont Attorney General announced that it will no longer be enforcing Act 120, Vermont’s GMO labeling law. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin called S. 764 a “flawed bill [that] is a capitulation to the food industry that does not even come close to providing the transparency consumers deserve.

Act 120: Vermont’s efforts to require GMO labeling

The Vermont legislature passed Act 120 in May 2014. The law required the labeling of food produced with GE. Under what Governor Shumlin touted as “a common sense labeling law that guarantees clear, accessible information,” products offered for retail sale in Vermont that are entirely or partially produced with GE were required to be labeled as follows:

  • Packaged raw agricultural commodities required labeling on the packaging with the clear and conspicuous words, “produced with genetic engineering.”
  • Raw agricultural commodities not separately packaged required labeling on the retail store shelf or bin where the product is displayed for sale with the clear and conspicuous words, “produced with genetic engineering.”
  • Processed foods containing a product or products of genetic engineering required labeling on the packaging with the words “partially produced with genetic engineering;” “may be produced with genetic engineering;” or “produced with genetic engineering.”
  • Manufacturers of food produced entirely or in part from genetic engineering were prohibited from labeling the product on the package, in signage, or in advertising as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or any similar words that would have the tendency to mislead a consumer.