The patchwork of state laws requiring food and beverage companies to label products that contain bioengineered ingredients is emerging and underscores the challenging situation the industry faces if a federal statute that addresses the issue is not passed into law. As state legislators from around the country propose legislation they are not only creating unique sets of regulations with which companies must comply, but they are putting a greater strain on the ingredient supply chain.

Fortunately, regulators in Vermont have sounded a conciliatory tone regarding implementation and enforcement of the bioengineered labeling law beginning July 1. The state’s attorney general made clear that his enforcement priorities will focus on what are deemed “willful violations” and will not bring enforcement cases based solely on a company’s failure to remove improperly labeled products that were distributed before July 1.

Yet, while most attention is directed toward Vermont’s effort, there are other pieces of legislation making their way through other state houses. In Rhode Island, for example, such legislation is currently under consideration and close attention must be paid to its progress. In addition to requiring the labeling of products containing bioengineered ingredients on both the front and back of the package, the Rhode Island measure also defines a “natural food” as one “which has not been treated with preservatives, antibiotics, synthetic additives, artificial flavoring or artificial coloring.”

Further, under the proposed legislation, products marketed as natural in Rhode Island must not have been processed in a manner that makes such food significantly less nutritive. The legislation does not define the meaning of “significantly less nutritive.”

Other states introducing legislation include Massachusetts and New York. If New York’s law were to pass, record keeping requirements in the statute would represent a major compliance challenge to food and beverage companies.

During the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s annual science forum, held this past April in Washington, D.C., Pamela Bailey, president of the group, outlined the challenges the shift by some companies to non-bioengineered ingredients is placing on the supply chain. Sugar beets produced in the United States, of which 90 per cent are bioengineered, are currently at a 24-year low in orders. Concurrently, cane sugar, which is non-bioengineered, is experiencing two-year highs in prices.

“Let’s be clear: If this trend continues and accelerates, there won’t be enough domestic supply of either non-G.M.O. sugar beets or cane sugar to meet the U.S. demand,” Ms. Bailey said. “And Mexico is already indicating that it is willing to supply the needed sugar cane if domestic supplies are inadequate.

“Is this what we want? Do we really want the law in Vermont to turn back the clock on our agriculture supply chain, to take us back to an era of more chemicals on our farms, of more tilling, more erosion, and lower yields per acre?”

The list of companies that are adding labels to products that contain bioengineered ingredients is growing. They include such corporations as the Campbell Soup Co., General Mills, Inc., ConAgra Foods, Inc., the Kellogg Co. and more. Another company, the Dannon Co., has vowed to go further and is in the process of altering its supply chain to not only eliminate bioengineered ingredients but also enhance the company’s level of transparency with consumers.

Transparency and trust are at the center of the debate over the labeling of food and beverage products containing bioengineered ingredients. With no action at the federal level and Vermont’s law the de facto national standard, proponents of the legislation are on the cusp of what they may perceive as a victory. Yet once the labels are in place, one has to wonder what genuine benefits will result.