KANSAS CITY — On Thursday, May 8, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed H.B. 112 into law and made Vermont the first state to require the labeling of products containing bioengineered ingredients. Advocates of labeling will hail the legislation as a watershed moment, but the reality is murkier.
For starters, the legislation is going to be challenged in court before it may be implemented. Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said he would be surprised if the state was not sued over the legislation. He predicted the legislation would be challenged on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment and is compelled speech.
Secondly, one has to wonder what kind of victory has been achieved. There are a number of exemptions within the legislation that defy logic if proponents are to be believed. Only products sold at retail will fall under the auspices of the legislation. Products sold for immediate consumption, at restaurants, for example, will not be required to provide information about whether their products are made with ingredients that have been bioengineered.
It would seem that if the ever-shifting positions of the pro-labeling movement, which include questioning the safety of bioengineered ingredients to citing the consumer’s right to know what is in the food they eat, were to believed then it would be paramount that labeling be required wherever food is sold.
H.B. 112 is nothing more than a symbolic gesture to those who perceive bioengineered ingredients as a threat, whether it is to personal safety, the consumer’s right to know or the environment. And with regard to the environment there is room to have a legitimate debate.
But the money spent to pass this legislation as well as the funds spent on failed efforts in other states has been wasted. It has done nothing for consumers and it has done nothing to promote legitimate alternatives to foods with bioengineered ingredients.About the only positive to come from these state-level efforts is the food and beverage industry will eventually adopt a national labeling program for products containing bioengineered ingredients. It is unclear what form the effort will take, whether it will be voluntary or mandatory, but it is going to happen. The question is if consumers, beyond those who have invested so much in these efforts, will care.