US state Vermont faces first legal challenge to GMO labeling

16 June 2014

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and three other trade groups have launched legal proceedings against Vermont in a bid to block the first GMO food labelling law from taking effect.

In a complaint filed in the US District Court for the District of Vermont, the plaintiffs argued taht the state's new Act 120 violated the First Amendment and several other provisions of the US Constitution.

Effective 1 July, 2016, the law would make it mandatory for food manufacturers to label foods produced through genetic engineering.

According to the trade groups, Act 120 would severely burden the food industry as most foods at grocery stores contained genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The group contends that the stated failed to factor the benefits and costs of the measure or consider less burdensome alternatives.

The lawsuit said the labeling deadline would be ''difficult, if not impossible" for many of plaintiffs' members.

''They must revise hundreds of thousands of product packages, from the small to the super-sized," wrote lawyer Matthew Byrne of Burlington, Vermont-based Gravel & Shea PC on behalf of the plaintiffs.

''Then, they must establish Vermont-only distribution channels to ensure that the speech Vermont is forcing them to say, or not say, is conveyed in that State. To comply by the deadline, some companies may have no choice but to revise the labels for all of their products, no matter where they might be sold in the United States."

When governor Peter Shumlin signed Vermont's GMO Labelling Act into law this spring, he and other lawmakers knew they would have a legal fight on their hands. 

The Grocery Manufacturers Association's challenge comes as the first against the state.

Unlike GMO labelling laws in other US states like Connecticut and Maine, Vermont's law does not call for similar laws by other states to take effect.

Shumlin said last month that over 60 countries had already restricted or labelled GMO foods. But the trade group has pointed out that the FDA did not require GMO labels and had verified ''the safety of more than 100 genetically engineered crops for human consumption" since 1994.

The plaintiffs argue that Vermont did not have a sufficient government interest to compel labelling, which runs afoul of the protections commercial speech, which was afforded under the First Amendment.

''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 this law," plaintiffs declared through their attorney. ''Act 120 thus fails any standard of First Amendment scrutiny."

They contend the law was also in violation of the 5th, 14 and 15th Amendments as also the Commerce and Supremacy clauses and argued the law was preempted by a number of federal laws, including the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.

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