empty shelves photo

Hope you had your fill of chips, burgers, soda and ice cream for the Fourth of July. Because in Vermont, those items and many others are becoming harder to find. Grocery stores are letting their supplies run out and aren’t restocking, for fear of being fined $1,000 per day – per product.

It’s all due to a controversial new GMO labeling law that took effect Friday. Vermont now requires labels on all packaged food products and produce items that contain genetically-engineered ingredients.

That means genetically-modified products that aren’t labeled can’t be sold in the state. And if you never realized just how many grocery products contain GMOs, all it takes is one look at a very long list of products that aren’t going to be available at all in Vermont anymore.

Wise potato chips. Entenmann’s baked goods. Starbucks Refreshers. Several varieties of Pepsi, Del Monte canned fruit, Chicken of the Sea products and Graeter’s brand ice cream.

They’re all among more than 3,000 products that one local grocery chain, Price Chopper, has publicly revealed that it will stop selling in the Green Mountain State. Each product contains GMOs, but none are labeled in compliance with Vermont’s new law. So unless and until the manufacturers update their labels, Price Chopper and other retailers will no longer stock the products on their shelves.

Opponents of the law argue that it merely feeds into anti-science hysteria surrounding GMOs. Surveys have shown that a majority of consumers believe GMOs are something best avoided, even if they don’t necessarily understand what they are.

In short, genetically-modified foods are those whose genes are manipulated, in order to better withstand disease, pests, drought and help increase production. Among the most prevalent GMO products are commonplace ingredients like canola oil, soybeans and sugar, which are contained in a large number of packaged grocery products.

Detractors are wary of mutant foods that may prove harmful. “GMO food relies on dangerous pesticides and increases corporate control over the food system,” the advocacy group Food & Water Watch argues. “GMOs should be labeled so we have a voice in what we eat.”

But others argue that science has shown no ill effects from GMOs. “There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption,” reads an open letter published by 109 Nobel laureates on Thursday. “Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production.”

Grocery industry groups also oppose Vermont’s law, with the Grocery Manufacturers Association calling it “a costly, misguided measure that will serve only to confuse consumers and promote misinformation about foods that are healthy and safe to eat.” But supporters of the law emphasize that it doesn’t ban GMOs – it just provides consumers with information, allowing them to decide for themselves whether they want to buy genetically-modified foods.

For consistency and cost savings, many manufacturers have already adjusted their labels on products sold throughout the country, in order to comply with Vermont’s law. Supporters of the law believe that’s an important first step toward making GMO labeling go national.

But federal lawmakers have another idea. This week, the U.S. Senate is expected to debate a House-passed bill that would create a national mandatory labeling standard – outlawing state statutes like Vermont’s in the process. A compromise law could turn out to be weaker than Vermont’s version, though, with one proposal calling for merely putting a QR code on a product and allowing you to scan it with your smartphone to find out if there are any GMO ingredients inside.

If there’s little consensus about the safety of GMOs, there’s certainly no consensus about how and whether to label them. So as the debate plays out, if you find yourself in Vermont and have a hankering for Entenmann’s donuts or Wise Cheez Balls, well, remember that New Hampshire is just a short drive away.

Photo by brownpau

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