Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks before signing a bill requiring the labeling of food with GMO ingredients during a ceremony at the Statehouse in Montpelier. GLENN RUSSELL/FREE PRESS Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks before signing a bill requiring the labeling of food with GMO ingredients during a ceremony at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday, May 8, 2014. / Glenn Russell, The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press
BURLINGTON, Vt. -- 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 said in a statement about the lawsuit.
The state Legislature passed the labeling law in April, and Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill in May. The labeling requirements would take effect July 1, 2016.
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 Thursday. His office had yet to be served with the complaint.
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 groups added that the federal government has the sole authority over regulating nationwide distribution and labeling practices that facilitate interstate commerce, and the Constitution prohibits Vermont from doing so.
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 lawsuit has drawn attention from a 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.
"Every U.S. citizen should be concerned when a multibillion dollar corporate lobbying group sues in federal court to overturn a state's right to govern for the health and safety of its citizens," Cummins said.
He said the lawsuit was a way to intimidate other states considering labeling laws.
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