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The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) urged Congress to enact federal legislation creating a uniform food-labeling standard, noting that the high costs, complexities and challenges of compliance with Vermont's food-labeling mandate demonstrate the need for a national benchmark.
GMA is challenging in federal court the Vermont law, which addresses foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and is slated to go into effect in July 2016. While the case is pending, however, food manufacturers must still plan for its implementation, incurring massive expenses and encountering many obstacles, Washington, D.C.-based GMA noted in a letter to the state's governor, Peter Shumlin.
"The challenges and costs associated with compliance are inordinate and compounded by the fact that the state of Vermont has repeatedly failed to respond to numerous comments we submitted seeking clarification in the implementation of the law, and has yet to provide any guidance on the subject," wrote GMA President and CEO Pamela G. Bailey in the letter.
According to the association, the costs of changing labels and supply chain systems will rise so high that they could exceed revenue to food manufacturers from the sale of products in the state.
Additionally, the letter took issue with a clause in the law that holds food manufacturers liable for fines of $1,000 per day if a mislabeled product appears on Vermont shelves, even if the manufacturer wasn't responsible for the item's placement in the store. Bailey noted that even with the best supply chain logistics available, 5 percent to 10 percent of products might be mislabeled in stores at any given time, and estimated that industry-wide, there could be more than 100,000 items sold in the state needing Vermont-specific labels. “That means our industry could be facing fines as much as $10 million per day,” she pointed out.
On June 18, the House Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee held a hearing on the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which would set uniform, science-based food-labeling standards, pre-empting state laws like the one in Vermont. The proposed legislation has garnered bipartisan support from 65 co-sponsors, 12 of them Democrats. Opponents of the bill, meanwhile, have dubbed it the "DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act," and contend that the revised bill is "actually worse for consumers," as it "block[s] state efforts to protect farmers and rural residents from dangerous herbicides used with GMO crops," according to Scott Faber, SVP of government affairs at the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group.
"It is critical that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture remain the pre-eminent authorities overseeing food labeling and agricultural production in the United States," said Claire Parker, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, which supports the federal legislation. "Otherwise, we will be faced with a confusing patchwork of state mandates that drive food prices up and threaten to put small farms and food producers out of business."
"It is vitally important that the committees move this bill forward so it can be considered and passed by the House this summer and then in the Senate as soon as possible," noted Bailey in the letter.