Food Safety Magazine

News | June 13, 2014

Food Industry Groups Sue Vermont to Overturn Mandatory GMO Labeling Law

By Staff

Food Industry Groups Sue Vermont to Overturn Mandatory GMO Labeling Law

Source: Burlington (VT) Free Press

Four national organizations whose members would be affected by Vermont's new labeling law for genetically engineered foods filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court challenging the measure's constitutionality.

"Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law — Act 120 — is a costly and misguided measure that will set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers," the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) said in a statement about the lawsuit.

"Act 120 exceeds the state's authority under the United States Constitution and in light of this GMA has filed a complaint in federal district court in Vermont seeking to enjoin this senseless mandate."

The Legislature passed the labeling law in April, and Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill in May. The labeling requirements would take effect in two years: July 1, 2016.

Lawmakers, the governor and the attorney general expected the law to be challenged in court. Trade groups had promised to fight the law in court.

Attorney General William Sorrell noted Thursday he had advised lawmakers as they deliberated that the law would invite a lawsuit from those affected "and it would be a heck of a fight, but we would zealously defend the law."

"We have been gearing up," Sorrell said when reached Thursday afternoon in New York City. His office had yet to be served with the complaint.

"I want to see the nature of the attack on the law," he said, but added, "I don't think there are going to be any surprises."

The statement from the Grocery Manufacturers Association summarizes the grievances of the four plaintiff organizations: GMA, the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers.

"Act 120 imposes burdensome new speech requirements — and restrictions — that will affect, by Vermont's count, eight out of every ten foods at the grocery store," the GMA said. "Yet Vermont has effectively conceded this law has no basis in health, safety, or science. That is why a number of product categories, including milk, meat, restaurant items and alcohol, are exempt from the law. This means that many foods containing GMO ingredients will not actually disclose that fact.

"The First Amendment dictates that when speech is involved, Vermont policymakers cannot merely act as a pass-through for the fads and controversies of the day," the association continued. "It must point to a truly 'governmental' interest, not just a political one."

The groups added that the federal government has the sole authority over regulating nationwide distribution and labeling practices that facilitate interstate commerce, and the U.S. Constitution prohibits Vermont from doing so.

"The U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have both the mandate and expertise to incorporate the views of all the stakeholders at each link in the chain from farm to fork," the association said.

The Vermont Right to Know GMOs Coalition, which lobbied for the law, argued that labeling would bring transparency to the information consumers would have about their food.

"The people of Vermont have said loud and clear they have a right to know what is in their food," said Falko Schilling, consumer protection advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Schilling said lawmakers determined there was a lack of consensus about the safety of genetically engineered foods "so putting labels on is a reasonable and prudent thing so people can decide for themselves."

The lawsuit, filed at U.S. District Court in Burlington, contends the Food and Drug Administration has "confirmed the safety of more than 100 genetically engineered crops for human consumption" since 1994.

The court complaint suggests the motivation for the new mandate is to respond to public-opinion polling "showing a consumer desire for labeling," but notes the law exempts dairy and restaurants, creating big gaps on the information consumers will have if they are concerned about genetically modified foods.

The lawsuit argues the state needs a compelling interest to restrict information that food manufacturers provide about their products. But at the same time, the complaint states that the law indicates private dollars should be tapped first for any legal battles. The measure caps state funding at $1.5 million.

"The state's unwillingness to use its own funds to administer and defend Act 120 is express confirmation that Vermont does not have a 'state' interest in the survival of the law," the lawsuit reads.

Schilling at VPIRG countered that Vermonters wanted the law so badly they were willing to share in the cost of defending the measure, and lawmakers decided to give them the opportunity to help. "But the state does fully support this law."

The lawsuit has drawn attention from national organization on the other side of the issue from the four plaintiffs.

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, defended the Vermont law, saying 60 other countries either have banned GMOs or require mandatory labeling of foods that contain them.

Cummins added, "Every U.S. citizen should be concerned when a multi-billion dollar corporate lobbying group sues in federal court to overturn a state's right to govern for the health and safety of its citizens." He said the lawsuit was a way to intimidate other states considering labeling laws.

Editor's Note: GMA's statement about the lawsuit may be viewed in its entirety here.