Vermont could likely be the first state in the country to require labels on genetically modified foods, under a bill approved by both legislative chambers and favored by the governor.
The House voted 114-30 this week to support the bill, which would require the GMO labels on produce and processed foods and which carries a maximum civil penalty for violators of $1,000 per day per product.
The Senate previously approved the measure, and Gov. Peter Shumlin says he plans to sign it into law. With his signature, the requirements would take effect July 1, 2016, giving food producers time to comply.
Shumlin hails the vote and says he looks forward to signing the bill.
"I am proud of Vermont for being the first state in the nation to ensure that Vermonters will know what is in their food," he says.
Twenty-nine other states this year and last have proposed bills to require GMO labeling, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two other New England states have passed laws to require GMO labeling but the legislation only takes effect when neighboring states also approve the requirement.
Amid health and environmental concerns over GMO foods, several activist groups lobbied for the Vermont bill and stoked fervor among the public. But the Washington-based Grocery Manufacturers Association sharply criticized the measure, saying that growing GMO food reduces pesticide and water use on the farm and can help feed a growing world population.
Under the bill, GMO labeling would not be required of restaurants, and retailers would not be liable for noncompliance concerning the labeling of processed foods. The civil penalty for "false certification" — $1,000 per day per product — would apply to the general product, not each individual item or package within that category.
Some lawmakers says they were voting for the measure in accordance with their constituents' demands but with trepidation because of the prospects of a legal challenge.
"It's the right thing to do, and to let some big corporation hold us hostage, by threatening to sue, is not OK," Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, says.
The bill includes a $1.5 million fund, to be used to implement the law and provide legal defense against lawsuits expected to be brought by food and biotech industries. If Vermont loses a lawsuit and is forced to pay the plaintiffs' legal costs, the expense could rise to $5 million to $8 million, the state attorney general's office has estimated.
The Grocery Manufacturers' statement calls the Vermont bill "legally suspect at best," and says it will consider filing suit. Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, declined to comment on whether Vermont should expect to be taken to court if the governor signs the GMO law.
If a Vermont law takes effect ahead of other states, it will mark another instance wherein the state is ahead of the curve. Vermont was first to ban slavery, first to allow non-property-owners to vote and first to pass same-sex marriage without a court telling it to do so.
But its record of successfully defending laws that challenge powerful interests is mixed. The state lost a federal court fight over the Legislature's efforts to close Vermont's lone nuclear plant and lost a campaign to require labeling of dairy products from cows treated with biotech growth hormone. However, it successfully defended a law requiring the labeling of consumer products containing mercury.
Republican Rep. Carolyn Branagan suggests that her constituents again appear ready to take on big business. She says she has received "dozens and dozens" of emails from constituents supporting the GMO labeling bill and would follow their wishes.
"There have been few things in my 12 years here in the Legislature that my constituents in the town of Georgia have cared more about," she says.