On Thursday, four national food manufacturing and distributing organizations filed suit against Vermont in the U.S. District Court of Vermont, contending the state's new labeling law for foods with GMO ingredients is unconstitutional.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association was the lead plaintiff for the four organizations: GMA, the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers.
As reported on May 12, the GMO labeling lawsuit was expected. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin's administration was gearing up for lawsuits – seeking donations to the Food Fight Fund, operated by Vermont's Agency of Administration Financial Services.
The state also set aside $1.5 million for the legal battle they knew would challenge this law, reports Rick Zimmerman, executive director of the Northeast Agri-business and Feed Alliance.
Related: Vermont Passes GMO Labeling Bill
A statement issued by GMA said Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law 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 labeling requirements would take effect in two years: July 1, 2016. Even before the law was passed, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell warned Shumlin and state lawmakers it would invite a lawsuit from those affected.
Mixed farmer sentiments on labeling
In February, American Agriculturist/Farm Progress polled 526 Northeast farmers and non-farmers, asking: Do you favor federal standards and GMO labeling of all foods with genetically-modified ingredients? It did not ask whether they favored state GMO labeling.
While 53% of non-farmers favored federal standards and labeling, farmers were more divided: 49% favored federal labeling; 38% did not; 13% were undecided.
Constitutional concerns at issue
GMA said the law – Act 120 – exceeds the state's authority under the United States Constitution.
"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," said GMA. "Yet Vermont has effectively conceded this law has no basis in health, safety, or science. That's 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 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 complaint suggests the motivation for the new mandate is to respond to public-opinion polling "showing a consumer desire for labeling". But it notes the law exempts dairy and restaurants, creating big information gaps for consumers concerned about genetically modified foods.
As reported in the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, Vermont's Right-to-Know GMOs Coalition lobbied for the law. The group 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 GMO foods "so putting labels on is a reasonable and prudent thing so people can decide for themselves."
Check out the details of GMA's June filing against Vermont GMO labeling laws.