Editors note: Shannon took to Twitter (@DinoReaderMom) to share her photos demonstrating the impacts of mandatory GMO labeling in Vermont. She shared her pictures with the
#WeLabeledGMOs hashtag, where GMO labeling advocates were celebrating. Shannon was kind enough to elaborate in this exclusive guest post. See Consumer Protection Rule 121 to read for yourself what this law does and does not require. For an overview of the impacts, see Six consequences for consumers of labeling GMOs by Mary Mangan (@mem_somerville).
Over the last week or so, local news sites in Vermont have been discussing ways Vermont’s new GMO law could affect local businesses and what it might mean for shoppers. I hadn’t done much research into the law: I wrote the senators to tell them I didn’t support it, but admittedly hadn’t read the law myself. So when I went to the store for the first time since the law took effect, I did some poking around in the all the aisles to see what was happening on the shelves. In short, things looked a bit bleak.
I am a lifelong Vermonter, and have lived in both a tiny town and “the big city” (Burlington, hardly a city). I know the challenges that Vermonters already deal with to feed their families. Growing up, we drove 45 minutes each week, one way, to get to a decent grocery store that had slightly better selection. While the state is small (both population and acreage), it can take a lot of time to travel from point A to point B. It is also worth noting that many smaller towns/villages don’t have their own grocery store, or what they do have is a very small, mom and pop owned business. Locals know not to expect things in stock that seem like they should be. We don’t even have a Target.
We have 3 “chain” stores in the area: Price Chopper, Hannaford, and Shaws. I also visited Dick Mazza’s General Store to get a feel for what smaller businesses were dealing with. I checked these stores on July 2nd and 3rd. While some things are pretty clear, others are clear as mud.
Price Chopper had signs under products stating that the manufacturer doesn’t plan to relabel to comply with Vermont law. This included products from Del Monte and Heinz as well as multiple types of baby formula. When asked about the signs, an employee said there were quite a few brands that weren’t planning on complying and that the store had 6 months to sell their stock of non-compliant foods.
Hannaford is a much larger store than Price Chopper, and had a very different approach. I spoke with the manager and was told that Hannaford, at a corporate level, had “accepted” the law and had been slowly transitioning things for months now. They slowly dropped the products that won’t be relabeled and labeled their own store brand items. At this location there weren’t any signs, in part because the store was “ahead” of the game and in part because they are a large store with the space for excess products. This store, for example, wouldn’t run out of formula right away but the manager did say that if the companies don’t label that they won’t be able to carry those items anymore.
At Mazza’s General Store I spoke with the owner (who also happens to be one of our state senators). Things there were more difficult for him because, while he could pre-buy items that weren’t likely to comply, he was limited in space. He also said there were new items coming up every day that did/didn’t comply, and that the law had gotten much more complicated than expected.
The reality is that shoppers in more populated areas won’t see much change at the bigger stores right away. The big changes will come once the stock of non-compliant products have been sold. I was told at one store that they had 6 months to sell the non-labeled stock and at another that they had 3 months. The law states that retailers have 6 months to get non-compliant items sold, so I am guessing corporate wanted things sold with some wiggle room in the store that told me 3 months.
Overall, there are thousands of items that are no longer being shipped to Vermont. This includes many items that people might easily do without, but it also includes many types of infant formula as well as many canned fruits and vegetables. A list of non-compliant foods (Excel spreadsheet) was created by our local news station, WCAX, for Alex Apple’s article Vt. supermarkets lose 3,000 products over GMO law.
In small towns and small grocery stores in Vermont, it will be difficult for shoppers to find certain items once they start to sell out. Distance can be very prohibitive, both in gas and time, especially when they are just hoping that the missing item, say baby formula or canned fruit, is in stock.
Some companies have said they do plan on relabeling. However, even if they do plan to relabel soon, Vermont can’t accept any items with non-compliant labels after July 1. So until the company gets that compliant stock into rotation, Vermont will be left in the lurch until they catch up. This seems to be the case with a particular brand of gluten free bread that a few of my celiac friends depend on to avoid making their own bread at home, a time consuming process.
Some companies have taken a hard line “not gonna happen” stance, which I don’t blame them for. It’s ridiculous to label for something that a large portion of the population doesn’t understand and will interpret as “scary” even though GMOs have been proven time and again to be safe. I have heard of several companies that don’t plan to relabel at all, even though this seems to vary widely depending upon who you ask. I had heard Coca-Cola didn’t plan to relabel at all, then I heard it only affects their vanilla or cherry flavors. Even if these companies change their minds and decide to relabel, Vermont could be left without items on the shelves for a significant amount of time.
As far as I know, it is still possible to get items shipped in via sites like Amazon without anyone getting in trouble for crossing state lines with non-labeled GMOs, however that isn’t an option for all of Vermonters. Some sites charge hefty shipping fees and some items you can’t even readily find online. Honestly, those that are likely to be hit hardest by this are those on WIC or with low incomes that can’t afford things like $80+ per year for Amazon Prime or extra gas money to travel to New York or Massachusetts or New Hampshire to buy the items they rely on to feed their families.
Overall, I have seen the beginning of what I fear will be a huge headache for Vermonters and for a lot of smaller stores as well. Things aren’t awful in MOST places right now but I don’t figure it will be too long before supplies of baby formula, affordable canned fruit and vegetables, and many other items will be sold out and unavailable. This law was a bad idea from the ground up and now Vermonters are going to have to pay the price.
Shannon is a mom of three and a life-long Vermonter – from the start of the organic movement all the way through the recently added “soda tax” and now the GMO labeling law. She considers herself science-minded but always learning, as people should be! She has Bachelors Degree from Johnson State College and hopes to pursue a Masters once her children are a bit older. In her spare time (funny! what parents have spare time?) she enjoys reading, fitness, and shouting at bad data in documentaries.
Click on the images to embiggen and view the captions. All images taken by Shannon and shared here with permission.