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Vermont co-ops push for GMO labeling

Customers at Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier. Vermont’s food co-ops want genetically modified food labeled.

Tony Talbot/Associated Press

Customers at Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier. Vermont’s food co-ops want genetically modified food labeled.

MONTPELIER — One of the most common questions these days among customers at ­Vermont’s food cooperatives is whether the food they are buying contains genetically modified ingredients, but the member-­owned cooperatives say they are unable tell their customers for sure.

The state’s 17 co-ops ­announced their support Tuesday for a bill that would require the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms, as more customers seek GMO-free food.

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‘‘They want education, and they want to know what has GMOs and what doesn’t,’’ ­Krissy Ruddy, community relations manager for the Hunger Mountain Coop. ‘‘Honestly we don’t have that information readily available.’’

The bill, which excludes dairy products, cleared the House Agriculture Committee last month and is expected to be taken up by the Judiciary Committee this week. But even if the bill becomes law, supporters expect it to be challenged in court by the biotech industry, as the state attorney general’s ­office has warned.

Genetically-modified crops are attractive to farmers ­because they are engineered to resist insects and tolerate herbicides. Critics have raised health concerns about such food, although the Food and Drug ­Administration says foods from genetically engineered plants must meet the same safety require­ments as foods from traditionally bred plants.

Last spring, the House Agriculture Committee approved a genetically modified organism labeling bill, but the action came late enough in the session that the legislation did not have time to get a vote in the full House or be acted on in the Senate. Supporters hope the bill will at least make it to the House floor this year.

The co-ops, which are owned by more than 30,000 members, see this as an important step toward a national initiative on the issue and mandatory labeling, said Ruddy.

The labeling measure has the support of 6,811 Vermonters and 175 farms and businesses, according to Rural Vermont. A survey sent to 8,800 members and customers of City Market Onion River Co-op in Burlington last spring found 95 percent of the 1,400 who ­responded favored such labeling.

About 18 other states are considering genetically modified organism labeling legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last month, Whole Foods Market, a national grocery chain, announced a 2018 deadline for suppliers to label such food for its stores in the United States and Canada.

The Vermont Grocers’ Association does not have a position on labeling, except that it ­believes it should be done on a uniform national basis, not through state-by-state laws.

‘‘What we don’t want to do is . . . 50 different state labeling laws which would . . . would hurt our producers, whether they’re in Vermont or not in Vermont and add costs to the whole system,’’ said president Jim Harrison.

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