Even though Vermont’s Act 120/Consumer Protection Rule 121 is in jeopardy due to the Senate’s approval of a federal GMO labeling bill (it still has to pass the House and get signed by President Obama), I still wanted to share my insight into the Vermont law. Vermont isn’t the first state to pass GMO labeling legislation – that would be Connecticut – but it is the first state that didn’t require other nearby states to pass labeling laws before enactment could take place. So, for what it’s worth, Act 120 went into effect on July 1, 2016. The law uses the phrase Genetic Engineering (GE) rather than the more commonly used phrase Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), but please note that they are used interchangeably in this post. The Act allows for a six-month ‘grace’ period on foods distributed/produced prior to July 1 to come into compliance. The good news–for some– is that not all products will require labeling since there are several exemptions to the law.
Those exemptions are:
- Products that are derived entirely from non-GE animals (for example, meat, plain milk, eggs, honey). To be clear, the only GE animal that is FDA approved is salmon but it isn’t yet commercially available in grocery stores and the approval may still be overturned if citizen activists and supportive politicians have their way. A product that contains an animal derivative but also contains other ingredients, like ‘Fudge Brownie Ice Cream,’ may still be subject to labeling based on the GE status of those other, non-animal derived ingredients.
- Processed, packaged food that contains meat or poultry, whose labels are subject to approval by the USDA, whether generic approval, pursuant to 9 C.F.R. § 412.2, or sketch, special statement and claim, or temporary claim approval, pursuant to 9 C.F.R. § 412.1 or the Vermont state equivalent, under 6 V.S.A. §§ 3302-3318. Okay, I’m not a lawyer but I believe the gist of the above statement is that any product containing meat or poultry, that requires inspection and label approval under federal and/or state regulations, is exempt from labeling. So, a package of corn dogs that has a USDA inspected seal on the front won’t require labeling in Vermont even if the corn meal breading is from GE corn.
- Food that is produced without the intentional use of or commingling with GE. So products made with ingredients that don’t have GE varieties, like oats, raisins, peaches, etc., or are made with non-GE corn, canola, cotton, soybeans, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and zucchini/summer squash, and that are not intentionally commingled with GE inputs during transport, storage and processing, are exempt from labeling.
- Foods that would require labeling solely because it includes GE processing aids or enzymes. That particular stretch of legalese had me confused for a while so I will attempt to illustrate: apple juice is commonly processed using a variety of enzymes that increase the juice yield during pressing and also remove the cloudiness of raw juice (that can be seen in apple cider). If those processing enzymes are derived from GMOs, the apple juice doesn’t require labeling under the law. Corn syrup derived from GE corn that is processed with GMO-derived enzymes would require labeling.
- Alcoholic beverages regulated under Title 7 (a Vermont State statute that deals with the sale and regulation of alcoholic beverages). Beverage products not covered under Title 7, like non-alcoholic beer, may need to declare on the label whether any inputs are produced with GE.
- Products that contain less than 0.9% (dry) weight of GE ingredients. Dry weight means that any added water or salt present in the food needs to be disregarded when calculating the total amount by weight (expressed as a percent) of GE ingredients. Companies making products that contain a lot of added water and/or salt, like flavored sparkling water or soup, may only use tiny amounts of GE ingredients in their products, but once they recalculate the dry weights of their ingredients, the 0.9% threshold may be surpassed and the product may need to be labeled. For example, an ingredient that contributes 0.5% (by weight) to a recipe that contains 95% added water and salt, calculates out to a dry weight of 10% (0.5 ÷ 5 = 0.1, then multiply by 100 to express percent = 10%).
- Products that have already demonstrated their non-GMO status, such as certified Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, or certified under NSF’s True North Non-GMO Protocol or SGS’s No GE Ingredients Supply Chain Process Verification Standard. Currently, these are the only certification programs approved for this exemption, even though other non-GMO certifications exist.
- Non-retail food items that are meant for immediate consumption, for example: food sold by restaurants and food truck vendors.
- Medical food. This kind of product wouldn’t be available to the public in retail fashion since it is only accessible through a physician/pharmacy.
Any products falling under any of the above scenarios will not require labeling in Vermont under the legislation. Everything else sold in retail packaging in Vermont needs to include on the product label one of the following three phrases, if produced after July 1:
- “Produced with Genetic Engineering” if the product contains 75% or more (dry weight) genetically engineered inputs
- “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” if the product contains less than 75% (dry weight) genetically engineered inputs
- “May be Produced with Genetic Engineering” applies only when the food’s manufacturer doesn’t know, after reasonable inquiry, whether the food is produced with GE or contains a component produced with GE.
Below are pictures of labeled products that contain the first and second phrases:
In the case of bulk processed food items that aren’t packaged, a note declaring the GM status of the item must be added onto the bin, shelf, or container that item is in. Retailers or farm stands selling raw GM produce like sweet corn or zucchini/summer squash must add a label adjacent to that item that announces clearly to consumers that it is produced with genetic engineering.
In addition to adding the appropriate phrase to the product packaging/bulk labeling/other signage, the law states that retailers and food manufacturers cannot use the word “natural” or words of similar meaning on the labels or in advertising of products that do contain GE ingredients. For example, a product called “All-Natural Vegetable Oil” produced from GM soybeans couldn’t be sold in Vermont until the label was edited to exclude “All-Natural” and include the phrase “Produced with Genetic Engineering.” This section of Vermont’s law is a huge deal – and a potentially huge headache – for brand owners since “all-natural” appears on a lot of products that may not be so natural according to the law. Editing product labels costs brand owners considerable money so it is understandable if they delayed making label edits in the hopes the law would get overturned before July 1. It now seems like they made a good gamble because the federal labeling law will likely pass the House. So, brand owners may not have to worry about Vermont non-compliant packaging materials in inventory, but they may still have to renovate their labels once the federal law goes into effect a few years down the road.
There is more to the Vermont law than just adding a phrase – or removing one – to a product package or posting notes on grocery store shelves next to certain produce items or bulk bins. The law also requires food manufacturers and retailers to obtain and maintain documentation that demonstrates their compliance with Act 120/Consumer Protection Rule 121. Companies that don’t comply with the labeling or documentation requirements will be penalized $1000 for per occurrence, per day. If the House doesn’t approve the federal GMO labeling bill, I will follow this post with more details on the documentation requirements and penalties of the Vermont GMO labeling bill. Until then, KnowGMOs!
– Karin Tobin, Non-GMO Certification Consultant