One of the most common questions these days among customers at Vermont's food cooperatives is whether the food they're buying contains genetically modified ingredients — but the member-owned cooperatives say they can't tell their customers for sure.
The state's 17 co-ops announced their support Tuesday for a bill that would require the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms, as more customers seek GMO-free food.
"They want education and they want to know what has GMOs and what doesn't," Krissy Ruddy, community relations manager for the Hunger Mountain Coop. "Honestly we don't have that information readily available to give to the people who need it."
The bill, which excludes dairy products, cleared the House Agriculture Committee last month and is expected to be taken up by the Judiciary Committee this week. But even if the bill becomes law, supporters expect it to be challenged in court by the biotech industry, as the state attorney general's office has warned.
GMO crops are attractive to farmers because they're genetically engineered to resist insects and tolerate herbicides. Critics have raised health concerns about GMOs, although the FDA says foods from genetically engineered plants must meet the same safety requirements as foods from traditionally bred plants.
Last spring, the House Agriculture Committee approved a GMO labeling bill but the action came late enough in the session that the legislation didn't have time to get a vote in the full House or be acted on in the Senate. Supporters hope the bill will at least make it to House floor this year.
The co-ops, which are owned by a total of more than 30,000 members, see this as an important step toward a national GMO initiative and mandatory labeling, said Ruddy.
The labeling measure has the support of 6,811 Vermonters and 175 farms and businesses, according to Rural Vermont. A survey sent to 8,800 members and customers of City Market Onion River Co-op in Burlington last spring found that 95 percent of the 1,400 who responded favored GMO labeling.
About 18 other states are considering some sort of GMO labeling legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last month, Whole Foods Market, a national grocery chain, announced a 2018 deadline for suppliers to label GMO-derived food for its stores in the U.S. and Canada.
The Vermont Grocers' Association doesn't have a position on labeling, except that it believes it should be done on national uniform basis, and governed not through state-by-state laws.
"What we don't want to do is go down a path of having 50 different state labeling laws which would be not only expensive, complicated, it would hurt our producers whether they're in Vermont or not in Vermont and add costs to the whole system," said president Jim Harrison.