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Vt. lawmakers wrestle with GMO bill - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. lawmakers wrestle with GMO bill

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MONTPELIER, Vt. -

The Senate Judiciary committee continues to wrestle with a bill that would require the labeling of food products containing genetically modified organisms or GMOs.

In addition to concerns about possible legal retribution from the biotech industry, lawmakers are also trying to decide if dairy products should be included in the measure. It's a bill many in the dairy industry could do without.

"The assumption is, well, it's not safe and why are those farmers using it if it's not safe," said Jane Clifford from the Green Mountain Dairy Farmer Coop Federation.

Much of the argument before lawmakers boils down to this question; if a dairy cow eats GMO grain, like many in Vermont do, what category would the milk fit in and the products made with it?

The current version of the GMO labeling bill passed by the House contains an exemption for dairy. The Green Mountain Dairy Farmer Coop Federation says the bill sets up an uneven playing field for conventional farmers whether the labeling requirement is in or out, primarily because the products will have to share shelf space with other products claiming to be GMO-free.

"I don't have a problem with people knowing what's in their food. This conversation though has gone to fear and when we're fearful of something we tend to not always get all the information," said Clifford.

Clifford says the bill, in her eyes, is more of a marketing tool than an effort to inform the public.

Ben & Jerry's is one of those companies eager to embrace the changes having already changed labels on about half its products and renaming iconic flavors like Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch.

"We led the fight 15 years ago for the right to label our products as RBGH, the first commercialized genetically engineered technology. We believe in transparency and a consumer's right to know, so for us this is just the right thing to do," said Chris Miller from Ben & Jerry's.

Ben & Jerry's argue that the exemption isn't even needed in the first place because no matter what a cow eats, the milk product cannot be considered genetically modified.

"I believe that removing the exemption may create more legal arguments. It raises these questions… Is it the food drug?  Is it the definition of what is a GMO and what isn't? I think it raises all those questions," said Diane Bothfeld from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.

Exemption or not, lawmakers say they are wary of treading on thin legal ice.

"Given the lawsuit that occurred over Vermont Yankee where the legislative record was a key component in Vermont losing that lawsuit, I think the legislative record needs to show clearly why there is an exemption or not for a particular product," said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County.

Given all the remaining legal and scientific questions, the committee isn't expected to take action on the bill until April 3 at the earliest.

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