The state of Vermont is the target of a federal lawsuit over its newly-enacted law requiring food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically-modified organisms, or GMO's. Four trade associations filed the suit on Thursday, alleging that Vermont has overstepped its powers. And the outcome of the case is expected to have impacts well beyond the borders of the Green Mountain State.
Vermont isn't the only New England state to pass a GMO labeling law. But unlike the measures recently approved in Maine and Connecticut, Vermont's law is not contingent on the actions of other, contiguous states. Maine's law, for example, wouldn't take effect until five neighboring states also pass a similar statute. Vermont, however simply requires the labeling, and sets a date for manufacturers to comply.
"We anticipated the lawsuits - expected to be sued, so it's not a surprise," says Vermont Assistant Attorney General Megan Shafritz.
Shafritz says her office made it clear to the Vermont Legislature that a challenge was likely. She says the state is still going over the 22-page complaint, filed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers.
It in, the plaintiffs point out that the FDA does not require companies to declare genetically-modified ingredients, and they say that compliance with the law's July 2016 start date would be virtually impossible. But more than that, it says that Vermont has overstepped its powers, and is trying to force manufacturers to make assertions they don't wish to make.
"It does appear that they are asserting a 1st Amendment challenge, and we did expect that that would be among the challenges made to the law," Shafritz says.
The trade groups are seeking immediate reversal of the law, and a ban on any further GMO labeling attempts. And some fear the case may have a chilling effect on fledgling legislation elsewhere.
Peter Bixby, a Democrat in the New Hampshire House, was among those who tried and failed to push through a GMO labeling bill this session, which was roughly modeled after one that did pass in Maine. One of the elements lacking in New Hampshire's recent attempt, he says, was a clear understanding of the costs involved in enacting a labeling law, including possible litigation.
"The fiscal note did not include a prospective amount for being sued," Bixby says. "And I suspect that when we bring it forward again, the fiscal note will include that, and that's going to probably make it more challenging to get something passed, at least in the short term."
And a GMO labeling law in New Hampshire would be essential, in order for Maine's newly-passed law to take effect.
Vermont, meanwhile, has set aside up to $1.5 million to fight the lawsuit, but Shafritz, with the AG's office, says should the state lose the case, Vermont could be on the hook for at least $5 million. She says that a fund has been set up so that people can chip in to help the state defend itself.
For a state of just 620,000 people, it's a case of David vs Goliath; the Grocery Manufacturers Association alone has the potential backing of some of America's wealthiest corporations. In Washington state last year, when a GMO ballot initiative was launched, the GMA spent $7 million successfully fighting it, their campaign funded by a long list of companies including Coca Cola, Kellogg, Hershey, Nestle, and J. M. Smucker.
And there's a lot at stake. An estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of foods on grocery store shelves contain some sort of genetically-engineered species.
But proponents of GMO labeling say the issue isn't about the advantages or disadvantages of GMOs. It's about the consumer's right to know. Ted Quaday is executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
"There's this very strong majority of people, not only in Vermont and in Maine, across the country, New Hampshire, and elsewhere, that very much feel they have a right to know what's in their food, and they want this food labeled," Quaday says. "And I don't think at the end of the day, lawsuits or threats of lawsuits are going to change that."
None of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit responded to our request for an interview by airtime, but the Grocery Manufacturers Association did issue a statement calling Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law "costly and misguided," and that the measure is encouraging a "50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers."