Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell on Thursday said his office would focus on “willful violations" of a state law that requires labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.
Act 120, the nation’s first law to require labeling of GE foods or so-called GMOs (genetically modified organisms), takes effect on July 1, 2016.
However, Vermont’s rule implementing the law creates a six-month safe harbor for foods that are distributed before the law takes effect and offered for retail sale through Dec. 31, 2016, Sorrell pointed out in a March 24 memorandum. In mentioning the safe harbor, he recognized the extended shelf life of some foods.
“During this six-month period, unless there is evidence that a manufacturer distributed a mislabeled product after July 1, 2016, we will not bring an enforcement action or seek fines for those products," Sorrell noted in the memo.
While Sorrell said all products must be properly labeled beginning on Jan. 1, 2017 regardless of when they were distributed, he said his office would focus its enforcement priorities “on willful violations of the labeling law."
“Thus, even after Jan. 1, 2017, we do not expect to bring enforcement cases based solely on a company’s failure to remove improperly labeled products that were distributed before July 1, 2016," he concluded.
Legislation that was narrowly defeated this month in Congress would have preempted Act 120. Since the Senate voted 49 to 48 not to advance a revised version of legislation calling for a voluntary labeling standard, large food manufacturers have announced nationwide initiatives to label their GMO ingredients in anticipation of Act 120 taking effect.
Sorrell said his office anticipated most GE foods will be properly labeled by the time the law takes effect.
About a year ago, a federal judge denied a request for a preliminary injunction to block Act 120, frustrating opponents of the law including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a trade association in Washington that represents more than 250 food, beverage and consumer product companies.
"Given that Vermont's Attorney General is no longer responding to public inquires on how to comply with the state's arbitrary and confusing labeling law, we appreciate any clarifications his office is willing to share," said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the trade association, in an emailed statement. "However, the Attorney General's memo does nothing to clarify how his office will stop private litigants from bringing actions against a company even if his office does not consider the mislabelings to be 'willful' violations. Nor does he clarify how he will know a 'willful' violation without bringing an action."