Grocery Association To Vermont Stores: Keep Labeling GMO Foods, But Only If You Want To

On July 1, a new Vermont regulation kicked in, requiring simple text labels on foods — even those prepared or packaged in the stores — made with genetically modified (GMO) ingredients. Then on July 29, President Obama signed into a law a bill that overturns the Vermont rules and will eventually (maybe) create a national standard for GMO labeling, leaving Vermont supermarkets unsure of what they should do about all the stuff they just started labeling.

Supermarket News reports that the Vermont Retail Grocers Association is telling stores and suppliers that it’s up to them whether they want to continue using these labels.

“VRGA is advising members that they are able to continue to label or use their updated packaging, however it’s no longer required,” explains VGRA president elect Erin Sigrist.

The federal law prevents Vermont and other states from enacting requirements for GMO labeling, but it doesn’t prevent the people who make these foods from electing to provide this information as they see fit.

In fact, some major national companies — including Campbell Soup Co. and Mars Inc. — recently told us they will continue, for the time-being, with the labels they made in advance of the Vermont rule change.

The recently signed law also doesn’t prescribe the language to be used in the eventual national standard. Instead, it gives the USDA two to three years to come up with the language and format for the label.

As you can see from the samples we photographed at Vermont stores back in early July, the Vermont labels were quite simple: Just a line of text somewhere on the package stating “Partially produced with genetic engineering” or something similar.

“It would be great if the feds used something similar to Vermont’s law so that retailers who’ve already worked to be in compliance don’t have to change labels again,” Sigrist tells Supermarket News.

However, one of the biggest concerns about the eventual national standard is that it won’t contain any language, but will instead be printed as a scannable barcode on food packaging. That would require the shopper to pull out their phone, launch an app, scan the barcode to be taken to a site with more information.

We recently asked Consumerist readers how likely they would be to scan barcodes to learn more about ingredients, and fewer than 7% of you expressed enthusiasm, while more than 50% of readers said they would definitely not be scanning barcodes.

The timing of the federal law appears to be seen as both a blessing and an annoyance by the VGRA, which has supported the idea of a national standard.

On the one hand, explains Sigrist, the fact that the federal law came about only few weeks after the Vermont rule took effect means that there was “a significant amount of money spent to get in compliance for three weeks, four weeks at most and it was a big hit for our members.”

Then again, some food suppliers — like Coca-Cola — had decided it would be best to just avoid Vermont rather than go through the expense of printing a line of text on its cans. (Keep in mind this is a company that routinely tweaks its packaging and prints cans and bottles with a variety of first names and song lyrics on them.)

This effective boycott of Vermont stores by some manufacturers meant there were gaps on supermarket shelves. Sigrid believes those gaps would have only gotten wider after the end of the grace period included in the Vermont rules to allow for overlap of foods not containing the new labels.