March 23, 2016

The Dark Act Gets Blocked…But What Does This Mean For Vermont Businesses?

Image_FoodSafetyTo be totally honest, I was pretty darn happy when I heard that the Senate had blocked the ‘Dark Act’ (technically known as the Biotech Labeling Solutions Act).  It means, in short, that the federal government can’t nullify what a handful of states have voted for – that products using genetically modified ingredients must label their products appropriately.

As a consumer, the fact that the government can’t block state rights on this matter is an important one to me.  I personally spend a lot of time and energy focused on feeding my family and I want transparency into what I’m feeding them.  That way I can choose whether or not to incorporate GMOs based on a variety of factors that are important to me.

However, there’s another lens we have to look at this through and that is how this is going to impact the small food entrepreneurs.  Looking at the state of Vermont, because their GMO labeling bill is set to go into effect first, raises a few questions:*

The first of which is that there is no exemption for small businesses like there are for many other food labeling laws.  Vermont’s rule states that anyone, regardless of business size, using a GMO ingredient in their processed product must declare that.    But since other states don’t have GMO labeling in effect yet, how will said small entrepreneur know that what they’re purchasing as ingredients is GMO free unless 1) it is certified organic or 2) produced by another Vermont company.  In the first case, while a nice thought, that may be cost prohibitive and in the second, that limits the ingredients you can use if you are only able to work with other local companies that also fall under the same labeling regulations.

The other options, for specialty food producers, would be to have their products tested and/or follow their ingredients through the supply chain to find out whether or not the corn, for example, that they buy from XYZ, who buys it from ABC, who buys it from 123, etc…is GMO free.  That’s a lot of legwork to be done for every ingredient an artisan users.

There are some workarounds, one of which is that the law doesn’t impact unpackaged food that is sold for immediate consumption or internet sales.  So the question a food producer needs to ask themselves then is whether they may want to change to their business model and rather than sell, for example, packaged jam at a farmers’ market, perhaps they use that jam to create a ‘grab-and-go’ product at the farmers’ market instead.  Or perhaps that jam maker gets out of farmers’ markets and retail stores to focus on online sales instead.

One can hope that this will just be a short-term hurdle and that as more and more states mandate GMO labeling, as more and more companies – like Whole Foods Market – mandates that the brands within their stores have transparency in their labeling, and as more and more companies – like Campbell’s Soup Co – take it upon themselves to either remove GMOs altogether or label their products accordingly, it will become easier for smaller food producers to truly understand what’s in the ingredients they’re using and make the decisions that are right for their businesses based on that information.

*I am not an attorney so this was my understanding of Vermont’s labeling laws.  If I’m mistaken, please let me know!

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