How Little Vermont Got Big Food Companies To Label GMOs

Mar 27, 2016
Originally published on April 12, 2016 9:41 am

You'll soon know whether many of the packaged foods you buy contain ingredients derived from genetically modified plants, such as soybeans and corn.

Over the past week or so, big companies including General Mills, Mars and Kellogg have announced plans to label such products – even though they still don't think it's a good idea.

The reason, in a word, is Vermont. The tiny state has boxed big food companies into a corner. Two years ago, the state passed legislation requiring mandatory labeling.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has fought back against the law, both in court and in Congress, but so far it's been unsuccessful.

Last week, as we reported, Congress failed to pass an industry-supported measure that would have created a voluntary national standard for labeling — and also would have preempted Vermont's law. Which means for now, food industry giants still face a July 1 deadline to comply with the state's labeling mandate.

And since food companies can't create different packaging just for Vermont, it appears that the tiniest of states has created a labeling standard that will go into effect nationwide.

This statement, from General Mills' Jeff Harmening, sums it up:

"Vermont state law requires us to start labeling certain grocery store food packages that contain GMO ingredients or face significant fines," Harmening wrote on the General Mills blogs.

"We can't label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers and we simply will not do that," explains Harmening.

So, as a result: "Consumers all over the U.S. will soon begin seeing words legislated by the state of Vermont on the labels of many of their favorite General Mills products," he concludes.

Chocolate giant Mars struck a similar tone in its announcement: "To comply with [the Vermont] law, Mars is introducing clear, on-pack labeling on our products that contain GM ingredients nationwide," the company statement says.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require such labels because - as this guidance document explains - the agency has determined that the nutritional quality and safety of GMO ingredients, such as corn starch or soybean oil, are no different from the same ingredients derived from conventional crops.

According to Mars, "we firmly believe GM ingredients are safe." But consumer expectations are changing. "We aim to deliver products that match the different tastes, preferences and perceptions of consumers," the Mars statement says.

According to a 2015 poll, two-thirds of Americans support labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.

"Consumers are pushing for more transparency," food industry analyst Jack Russo told us. Earlier this year, the Campbell Soup Co. acknowledged this when it became the first major food company to switch its position and come out in support of mandatory GMO labels.

The food industry overall is still hoping that the federal government will step in.

"We continue to strongly urge Congress to pass a uniform, federal solution for the labeling of GMOs to avoid a confusing patchwork of state-by-state rules," wrote Paul Norman, president of Kellogg North America in an emailed statement.

But it's clear that companies can no longer wait for this federal action. "The horse [is] out the barn," says attorney David Wallace, of the firm Herbert Smith Freehills, who specializes in food issues. Companies are already preparing new labels to begin hitting store shelves in a few weeks.

"Companies had no choice. ... They've been making plans for this. They had to," explains Wallace.

As a result, both sides in the debate over GMO labeling now will learn the answer to a question that many have posed over the past 20 years: How will consumers react to a label that says "produced with genetic engineering?"

Food companies have argued that such a label will scare consumers away, because they'll see it – incorrectly – as a warning. If it has that effect, companies will react by removing genetically modified ingredients from their products. In fact, food companies see the labeling campaign as a veiled attempt to drive genetically engineered crops out of agriculture.

Privately, however, many companies are hoping that consumers will disregard those labels and continue to buy the same products as always. Consumers who are motivated to avoid GMOs may be doing that already, by buying organic or non-GMO products.

If that's the case, those GMO labels will turn out to be just extra words on the package.

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Over the past two weeks, four big food companies - Kellogg's, General Mills, Mars and ConAgra - announced they will put new labels on their products telling consumers if anything in the food came from a so-called GMO, a genetically modified crop. But these same companies have spent a lot of money fighting such labels. They're on record saying that labeling GMOs is pointless. It's irrelevant to nutrition. It's generally a terrible idea. Here to explain their turnaround is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles. Welcome, Dan.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So why are these companies turning around?

CHARLES: This is a fascinating case study in what happens when local politics collides with a giant, integrated national food supply system. The little state of Vermont, two years ago, passed a law requiring labels on all foods that come from genetically engineered crops. The food industry fought this law. They went to court. They fought it in Congress. But so far, they have failed. The law's supposed to go into effect in July. So the companies are now saying, OK, we have to obey this law in Vermont. And we can't come up with special labels just for Vermont. We have to do it nationwide because we sell food nationwide. Essentially, this Vermont law has become the national standard.

WERTHEIMER: Even though it is not nationally required that they do this.

CHARLES: Right. And in fact, the Food and Drug Administration - the federal government says such labels, really, are completely unnecessary because the food from these genetically engineered crops are, nutritionally speaking, exactly like the food from conventional crops. And so there is no reason to label because it's almost misleading to do so.

WERTHEIMER: So is this just a label on the same foods they've always sold? Or do you think it's possible that this will have an effect on what kind of ingredients the companies actually use?

CHARLES: This is a really big question. And it's going to be very interesting to see what plays out because in the public debate over GMO labeling, there's been so much posturing. The people who've been arguing for GMO labels, they've been saying that this is just about transparency, about the right of consumers to know what's in their food. And they've said that this is not going to cost so much. It doesn't cost much to just slap a label on food.

But those same labeling advocates have also been hoping that the labels actually will change the food system - that consumers, having seen the label, will avoid GMOs. And the companies will react by getting rid of GMOs. So this is one scenario - that the labels will drive GMO crops out of agriculture. Now, there's another side. The food companies and other people who've been fighting against labeling, they've been predicting, publicly, that this is, in fact, what will happen - that the label will scare consumers away, they say, for no good reason. And the companies have been saying that's going to drive the GMOs out of the agriculture, and it's going to drive food costs up. Therefore, labels are a bad idea.

But the companies also have a secret hope. Their hope is they'll put those little words on the package - produced with genetic engineering - and consumers will just keep buying the same stuff they always did. This is an experiment that people have been wondering about what would happen for the last 20 years, since GMOs came on the market. And now, finally, maybe we'll see what the truth is.

WERTHEIMER: Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent. Dan, thank you.

CHARLES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.