The Vermont GMO Labeling Law is currently in effect, but it may soon be preempted by federal legislation making its way through Congress.
On July 7, by a vote of 63-30, the US Senate passed a measure (Senate Bill) concerning the labeling of bioengineered foods (known colloquially as GE or GMO foods).  The Senate Bill would establish a national disclosure standard for bioengineered foods that would preempt any state-level GMO labeling requirements and would give the secretary of agriculture two years to draft appropriate implementing regulations. Most immediately, if enacted and signed into law, the Senate Bill would directly affect Vermont Act 120, Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law, which as of July 1, 2016, is in effect as discussed below. The Senate Bill is now before the US of House of Representatives, which must reconcile the Senate Bill’s language with the text of a voluntary GMO labeling bill that the House passed in July 2015.
On July 1, 2016, Vermont Act 120 and its implementing regulation, the Vermont Consumer Protection Rule 121 (the Rule) went into effect (collectively, the Vermont GMO Labeling Law). The Vermont GMO Labeling Law requires special labeling of foods produced entirely or in part with genetic engineering identifying that fact. Additionally, the Vermont GMO Labeling Law prohibits a manufacturer of a food produced entirely or in part from genetic engineering from labeling the product as “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or any words of similar import that “would have a tendency to mislead a consumer.”
Recognizing that some packaged, processed food products have longer shelf-lives, the Vermont attorney general has stated that the Rule provides a six-month “safe harbor” for foods distributed before July 1, 2016, and offered for retail sale through December 31, 2016. In essence, a food manufacturer will not be liable for failure to comply with the Vermont GMO Labeling Law unless there is evidence that the food in question was distributed to the retailer on or after July 1, 2016. In addition, the Vermont attorney general also has announced that a consumer may not bring a private right of action to enforce the Vermont GMO Labeling Law before July 1, 2017.
If signed into law, the Senate Bill will
- allow food makers to select from among several options for labeling, including text on a package, a symbol, or a link to a website (e.g., QR code or similar technology);
- immediately prohibit states or other entities from mandating labels of food or seed that are genetically engineered;
- Apply to some meat, poultry, and egg products regulated by the US Department of Agriculture that are fully exempted under the Vermont GMO Labeling Law;
- allow small food manufacturers to use websites or telephone numbers to satisfy disclosure requirements;
- exempt very small manufacturers and restaurants from the requirements; and
- permit food that is certified under the National Organic Program to clearly display a “non-GMO” label in addition to the organic seal.
Given the current uncertainty that any legislation in the area will be enacted before Congress’s August recess, food companies that sell and ship food into Vermont need to familiarize themselves with the Vermont law as well as its exemptions. Hopefully, the situation will be clarified further in the coming weeks.