Tiny Vermont is on the verge of giving Big Food a huge headache.
Late last month, the Vermont legislature passed a law requiring the labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients. The governor has promised to sign the bill this week.
Vermont, of course, doesn’t matter much on its own. With a little more than 600,000 people, the state accounts for about 0.2 percent of the U.S. population. The real concern is that other states — about a quarter of which have some kind of GM-labeling legislation or ballot initiative in the works — may follow Vermont’s lead. This could prove intolerable to the food industry.
Here’s why: Different product labels would be needed for states that require labeling and for those that don’t. States that require labels might also require certain terms or specify their placement. Such a legal patchwork would be cumbersome, not to mention costly, for food companies and in turn consumers.
At least some of those pressing for state labeling laws wouldn’t mind that. Many of them are aligned with and financed by organic-food producers, who stand to benefit if some consumers shun GM products.
Big Food is so worried about labeling mandates, the industry spent $45 million in 2012 to defeat a labeling initiative in California, the country’s largest agricultural-goods producer. Anti-labeling groups again spent heavily last year to defeat a similar ballot referendum in Washington state. Vermont is already allocating money to a litigation fund in anticipation of a legal challenge from food makers.
Vermont’s law is the first of its kind in that it doesn’t depend on legislation in other states. Connecticut adopted a labeling measure last year, though it has a catch: It only kicks in if contiguous states enact similar laws. So far, none has done so.