Vermont GMO labeling bill passes first hurdle, but legal challenges await, warns assistant attorney general

By Elaine WATSON

- Last updated on GMT

Vermont's H112 is one of a series of GMO labeling bills introduced at state level in recent weeks, and is similar to California's Prop 37, which was narrowly defeated last November. Picture: MillionsagainstMonsanto Flickr
Vermont's H112 is one of a series of GMO labeling bills introduced at state level in recent weeks, and is similar to California's Prop 37, which was narrowly defeated last November. Picture: MillionsagainstMonsanto Flickr

Related tags: Gmo labeling bills, Genetically modified organism

A GMO labeling bill has passed its first regulatory hurdle in Vermont after the House Agriculture Committee passed it by an 8-3 vote last Friday.

One of a series of state-level GMO labeling bills introduced in recent months, H.112​ will now go to the House Judiciary Committee for review, then to the floor for a vote.

The bill has garnered strong support with 50 members of the House and 11 senators signing on as cosponsors and if passed, would be effective 18 months after at least two other states adopt similar bills, or 24 months after its passage in Vermont — whichever comes first.

Bill could be subject to legal challenge on First Amendment grounds

However, Assistant Attorney General Bridget Asay recently warned lawmakers that biotech companies would probably sue the state over the legislation on First Amendment grounds should it pass.

Indeed, the best-known example​ of a successful First Amendment challenge to a state-led food labeling initiative was in Vermont, when the 2nd circuit court concluded that a 1994 statute mandating labeling of milk treated with artificial growth hormones (rBST) was unconstitutional under the First Amendment, as it compelled food companies to choose speech instead of silence.

And a First Amendment challenge to a state-led GMO labeling initiative would be tough to defend, Rebecca Cross, an attorney at San Francisco-based law firm BraunHagey & Borden LLP, told FoodNavigator-USA last year, as the defense (ie. the state) would have to prove that failure to label GMOs would harm consumers.

"To justify GMO labels” ​said Cross, “you have to consider if any health and safety risks from GMOs are known, probable, or possible, and proving they are known or probable as opposed to just possible, could be hard." Click here​ for more information.

As it stands, federal law does not require the labeling of genetically engineered foods as the FDA has consistently argued that they do not differ from other foods "in any meaningful or material way​"​ or present any different or greater safety concerns than foods developed by traditional plant breeding methods.

Vermonters are being led to believe there's something different in these products than others on the shelves

Ben-and-Jerrys-Gmo-statement
While the bill has some high profile industry supporters including Ben & Jerry’s co-founders Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen, it has, however, been strongly criticized by other industry sources, notably the United Dairy Farmers of Vermont, which argues that labeling foods containing GE ingredients erroneously implies that there is something wrong with them.

Unlike GMO labeling bills introduced in Vermont in 2011 and 2012 (which were defeated), H112 does not require meat from animals fed genetically engineered feed to be labeled.

However, it does includes some of the controversial clauses enshrined in Californian GMO labeling initiative Prop 37 - which was narrowly defeated last November - including the stipulation that foods containing genetically engineered ingredients cannot be marketed as ‘natural’.

While the bill has some high profile industry supporters including Ben & Jerry’s co-founders Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen, it has, however, been strongly criticized by other industry sources, notably the United Dairy Farmers of Vermont, which argues that labeling foods containing GE ingredients erroneously implies that there is something wrong with them.

Spokeswoman Maggie Laggis told reporters that labeling would mislead consumers: "Vermonters are being led to believe there's something different in these products than others on the shelves and there's no difference, no nutritional difference, no health and safety difference”.

However, Dave Rogers, policy adviser for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, said the issue was not about safety, but consumer choice.

“We’re not saying this stuff is going to kill you​,” Rogers told journalists​. “In the face of such uncertainty, we have a right to know what we’re buying and make our own choices.”

Is a federal GMO labeling law inevitable?

gavel-big-legal-istock
A bill that would make the labeling of foods containing GMOs a matter of federal law is currently being developed by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO).

So what happens next, and is a federal GMO labeling law probably inevitable given the flurry of state-level initiatives now underway?

While the Grocery Manufacturers Association has consistently opposed GMO labeling initiatives in individual states, several of its members are reported​ to have attended a meeting in Washington earlier this year to discuss federal labeling options amid concerns that complying with a patchwork of different GMO labeling laws across multiple states could prove to be a nightmare for manufacturers.

Trade associations representing the natural products industry have been more ambivalent about GMO labeling, with the Natural Products Association (NPA) and the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) both opposing Prop 37 , but remaining agnostic over Washington State’s GMO labeling proposal I-522​, which has just secured enough signatures to go to the state legislature​.

Related topics: The GM debate, GMO Labeling, Regulation

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6 comments

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I HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW WHAT I'M PURCHASING

Posted by Syn L.,

Companies don't want to label because such a large population is now paying attention to what they eat. So if there is nothing "wrong" with genetically engineered foods, then why don't you label it. Afraid of healthy competition? How about the fact that I want to know what I'm putting in my body? Where is my choice to eat as healthy as I CHOOSE. Where's the RIGHT OF THE PERSON BUYING it? I can grow my own? Yes...really NO because now they are making it hard to get true organic seed that is not genetically engineered--and THAT they don't have to label. Right now seed labeled "Organic Seeds" are not necessarily true organic. So, to major companies.....if your product is so great, tell us what's in it and let individuals make their own decisions.

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Liberals Driving Up Costs Again

Posted by Bob Smith,

In their zeal to make the world a better place to live, uninformed Liberals are driving costs up on food products for everyone. Even if you don't care about GMO, which the vast majority do not, you WILL pay more for it as a result of labeling costs. I hope you liberals feel good about increasing food costs for those who can't afford to make a choice based on anything other than cost. So misguided.

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rights to eat whole foods

Posted by mary,

what is so hard about a little label that reads gmo? i can make my own choice if i know.Not telling anyone how to buy there food. they label everything else so why not let people know its gmo. than you can move on

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