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The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—the world’s largest trade association for food, beverages and consumer products—has issued a road map to its member companies on how to comply with Vermont’s precedent-setting law that requires the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), even though the powerful organization has heavily lobbied and spent eye-popping sums to fight state-by-state labeling mandates.

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Americans can hardly agree on anything, but polls show that 93 percent of us want the federal government to require labels on genetically engineered food. How is Big Food responding to near consensus? Photo credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

Is Big Food Throwing in the Towel on GMO Labeling?

The GMA, which represents more than 300 food and beverage titans such as ConAgra, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kellogg and Hershey, has posted on its website a six page, 29-point FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions] document in order “to respond to questions that companies have about compliance with the Vermont law,” Roger Lowe, the executive vice president of GMA’s Strategic Communications, told EcoWatch in an email.

EcoWatch was made aware of this FAQ after a tipster sent us a copy of an earlier version of the document that was last updated on Aug. 3, 2015.

In the document, the GMA offers a bevy of guidelines for its companies on how to comply with Vermont’s label law set to take effect July 1, 2016, even though the GMA has slapped lawsuits on the state to block the labeling law, and has spent millions in lobbying against mandatory labels at the state and federal level.

Their FAQ brings up points such as the specific language that can be used on a label, what the label should look like, where it should be placed, financial penalties for noncompliance, whether or not the word “natural” can be used for GMO-foods (prohibited by Vermont), and even whether or not GMO-food sold from restaurants or vending machines would require labeling (they don’t).

Although the GMA expresses outright that this document is “NOT legal advice” and “it is up to each company to unilaterally decide its own course of action,” just the existence of this FAQ suggests that Big Food companies are preparing a transition to labeling their GMO products, or at least in Vermont.

But there’s a larger picture: If (or when) Vermont’s mandate kicks in next year, it could have far-reaching implications for the labeling of GMO food products in the U.S.

Vermont Wins the Right to Know

The case for labeling GMO food has been boiling over in recent years, and in May 2014, Vermont became the first state in the U.S. to do just that. Unsurprisingly, the law was immediately shunned by the GMA and the organization sued the state, claiming GMOs are “safe and have important benefits for people and our planet.” It would be too burdensome and costly for national food and beverage manufacturers to make a special GMO label for Vermont but not for the other 49 states, is how the argument against labels basically goes.

In June 2014, the GMA, as well as the Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association and National Association of Manufacturers, asked for a preliminary injunction against implementation of the Vermont labeling law at the state’s District Court. District Judge Christina Reiss denied the request, so the groups promptly filed a joint appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City. Opening arguments for Grocery Manufacturers Association, et al. v. Sorrell, Case No. 15-1504, were heard earlier this month.

Unless the Second Circuit panel rules in favor with the food groups, or a federal law supersedes Vermont (more on that later), Vermont’s labeling law could open the door for at least 30 other states considering GMO label laws, such as Connecticut and Maine that are waiting on neighboring states to pass similar legislation before triggering their own GMO labeling laws.

Public Opinion on GMOs

So why did the GMA bother to float around a FAQ document guiding its members on how to accommodate Vermont’s new GMO labeling mandate—something they’ve been fighting tooth and nail? 

The document suggests that the food industry is responding to U.S. consumer wariness over GMOs, according to Scott Faber, the vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, who has seen a copy of the document.

An oft-cited statistic is that 93 percent of Americans support mandatory labeling of GMOs, and that at least 64 countries have either banned GMOs or require labels. The sentiment is compounded with the World Health Organization’s infamous classification of glyphosate—the main ingredient in biotech giant Monsanto’s popular weedkiller Roundup—as a possible carcinogen.

“It’s evidence that the industry is recognizing that they face a steep climb, and the time has come to prepare for labeling,” said Faber, who is also the executive director of the Just Label It campaign that advocates for mandatory labeling of GMO foods.

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