BRATTLEBORO -- Late on Thursday afternoon, four organizations filed suit against the state of Vermont for Act 120, which requires food manufacturers to label products that include genetically engineered ingredients.
The organizations contend the act violates their First Amendment rights by compelling them to "use their labels to convey an opinion with which they disagree ..."
The plaintiffs include the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the Association of Manufacturers.
The defendants include Attorney General Bill Sorrell, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Harry Chen, the commissioner of the Department of Health, and James Reardon, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Finance and Management.
The plaintiffs are asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont to invalidate Act 120 and enjoin the state from enforcing it.
"In adopting Act 120, the State acted as a pass-through for advocates of controversial views that the State did not purport to endorse, and that are based on conjecture about ‘unintended consequences’ that the State did not bother to substantiate, or even investigate," note the plaintiffs.
The four organizations also claim Act 120 violates their Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights because its ban of certain words in the advertising of foods with GMOs "opens the door to arbitrary enforcement."
In addition, they claim, Act 120 violates the Commerce Clause because it attempts to regulate interstate traffic, which is the sole jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress.
"There are no major food manufacturers based in Vermont, and Vermont’s restaurant and dairy industries, as well as its organic industry, are all exempted from the Act’s requirements. Consequently, the cost of implementing the regulation falls largely, if not entirely, on out-of-state companies.
They also note that substituting non-GE ingredients in Vermont-bound products "is not feasible.
"Act 120 imposes monumental costs that fall on out-of-state entities and employees who have no political representation in the State. It alters and impedes the flow of interstate commerce in food, which the public has a strong interest in keeping affordable and accessible throughout the year. It has the effect of regulating products, conduct, and commerce occurring outside Vermont’s borders, and on the Internet."
The trade groups call the Vermont law "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."
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell told the Associated Press he hasn’t seen the lawsuit, but his office has been preparing to defend the law.
Maine and Connecticut also have adopted GMO label laws, but their laws require neighboring states to follow suit before their requirements go into effect.
New York lawmakers are working on a GMO labeling bill, as well. And if it becomes law, Connecticut’s law would automatically take effect.
The Vermont law, due to take effect in two years, calls for the labeling of processed GMO foods and for retailers to post signs on displays of unpackaged genetically engineered foods. It also sets a civil penalty of $1,000 per day per product for "false certification." The entire product, not each individual item or package, would be subject to the penalty.
Restaurants would be exempt from the requirements.
Shumlin said Vermont will continue to push for what he calls common-sense labeling on packaged foods that contain GMOs.
"Now, as we expected all along, that fight will head to the courts," he said.
When Shumlin signed the GMO labeling legislation last month he announced the creation of a website to help the state raise money to pay for the legal battle, which could cost the state millions. It’s unclear how much money is in the fund.
The grocers also argue that it would be difficult if not impossible for the industry to meet the requirements of the new law.
"They must revise hundreds of thousands of product packages, from the small to the super-sized," the suit said. "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."
Many in the food industry say the GMO technology boosts food production and its use is less environmentally harmful than traditional farming methods.