11th hour reprieve from the courts or from Congress increasingly unlikely

Bounty hunters could come after you from day one if you are not compliant with Vermont GMO labeling law, warns attorney

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Ther Vermont GMO labeling law comes into effect on July 1: Are you ready?
Ther Vermont GMO labeling law comes into effect on July 1: Are you ready?
Private litigants, or so-called ‘bounty hunters’, may start targeting food manufacturers over alleged violations of Vermont’s new GMO labeling law from day one (July 1), lawyers at Hogan Lovells have warned.

Speaking at a Snack Food Association webinar on Thursday, Martin Hahn, a partner in Hogan Lovells’ Washington DC office, noted that the Vermont attorney general William Sorrell had recently promised a six-month safe harbor period​ for foods without compliant labels that were distributed before July 1 and offered for sale through December 31.

Sorrell had also stressed that state enforcement action would focus on “willful violations​” of the law (Act 120).

Private litigants can enforce the law as well as the state

However, food manufacturers should be aware that private litigants may also enforce Act 120 (as it is codified in a part of the Vermont code that has a private right of action), and would likely exercise less restraint than the state AG in the first few months, predicted Hahn.

“There is a bounty hunter provision that allows individuals in the state of Vermont, lawyers for example… to enforce the law. We are concerned that bounty hunters will take action as soon as Act 120 goes into effect.

“Private individuals are not entitled to recover $1,000 per day per SKU ​[the amount the state is entitled to claim for non-compliant products under Act 120] but they are entitled to receive at least three times the​ [ticket price of the] product they purchase and retrieve their attorney’s fees, which could amount to a significant amount of money.

“We’ve also not been able to ascertain whether you could put together a class action and lawyers could argue that any consumer from Vermont who purchased your product from July 1 and found it was not properly labeled, should be entitled to compensation, so we’re talking about ​[potential awards amounting to] dollar sales of your product across the state of Vermont times three, and all the legal fees. And at a minimum, legal fees for one of these actions would likely be $250,000 to $1m.”

“Let’s cut to the chase here folks, if you don’t have products properly labeled by early- to mid-May the likelihood that products shipped to Vermont by July 1 ​[will be compliant] is increasingly unrealistic.” Martin Hahn, partner, Hogan Lovells

Don’t rely on an 11th​ hour reprieve from the courts or from Congress

Asked about the likelihood of a last-minute get-out-of-jail card for the industry in the form of a federal voluntary GMO labeling bill​ that would trump the law in Vermont and other states, he said: “I haven’t given up hope, and I’m trying to be an eternal optimist, but you have to be pragmatic.”

Meanwhile, those hoping for an 11th​ hour development in the lawsuit over the law in Vermont needed to get real, he said, noting that all attempts to delay the implementation of Act 120 before legal challenges to the law have been resolved have so far failed.

Ultimately, he said, the question of state-driven mandatory GMO labeling could end up in the Supreme Court​ [to settle a long-running debate over compelled speech on product labels], but even were this to happen, it would not be heard for months if not years, leaving food manufacturers stuck between a rock and a hard place, because whatever happens, Act 120 will come into effect first.

It’s frustrating and maddening... but let's cut to the chase...

He added: “It’s frustrating and maddening that they won’t delay implementation until appeals are resolved, but … we need to be pragmatic.

“Let’s cut to the chase here folks, if you don’t have products properly labeled by early- to mid-May the likelihood that products shipped to Vermont by July 1 ​[will be compliant] is increasingly unrealistic.”

If you have 1,000 non-compliant SKUs, civil penalties could amount to a million dollars a day

He also pointed out that while the Vermnt state attorney general William Sorrell had promised a 6-month safe harbor, that only applied to products shipped into Vermont BEFORE July 1 that might still be on shelf up until Dec 31. However, if products were shipped into the state AFTER July 1, they should immediately be compliant, he said.

“If you’re shipping products ​[with non-compliant labels] after July, you are vulnerable. It’s $1,000 per SKU per day, so if you have 1,000 SKU, that’s a million dollars a day.”

Just because your product wasn’t intended​ for sale in Vermont doesn’t get you off the hook

Veronica Colas, senior associate at Hogan Lovells, meanwhile, noted that the law also applied to products that may not have been intended​ for Vermont, but landed up for sale there nevertheless.

For example if a product is diverted into Vermont by a distributor, or a Mom & Pop retailer purchases a manufacturer's product in a Costco out of state and then sells it in Vermont, that manufacturer is still liable, she said.

“So you need to have close control over your distribution and know how likely it is that your products could be offered for sale in Vermont without your intending to distribute them there​.”

US-legal

Under Act 120​ firms supplying foods for sale in Vermont must declare that they are: ‘Produced with genetic engineering’​ or ‘partially produced with genetic engineering’ ​or ‘may be produced with genetic engineering’​ unless they can prove otherwise.

It also includes the stipulation that foods containing genetically engineered ingredients cannot be marketed as ‘natural’.

However, it excludes processed foods containing GE material if this material accounts for less than 0.9% of the dry weight of the product. (For example, a salad dressing that contains only a small amount (no more than 0.9% by weight) of corn syrup produced from GE corn and no other GE material would not be subject to the labeling requirement.)

C-store-shopping

Similarly, it does not require meat or milk from animals fed genetically engineered feed to be labeled, and excludes alcohol, processing aids/enzymes (eg. cheese made with vegetarian GE rennet), dietary supplements, medical foods, foods sold online, unpackagedfoods sold in restaurants or unpackaged foods sold in supermarket delis (eg. hot soup).

The label "must be located on the package so as to be easily found by consumers when viewing the outside of the package ​[but doesn’t have to be on the front of pack]". ​Stickers or stamps are also acceptable.

Read an annotated version of the text of the law HERE ​ plus an FAQ​ from the Vermont attorney general’s office and an FAQ​ from the GMA.

The latest on state GMO labeling initiatives

So what’s happening outside of Vermont?

GMO labeling laws have passed in Maine and Connecticut, and while both require contiguous states to pass similar laws before they come into effect, these conditions could be removed, said Maggie Sommers Gentile, senior director of food and nutrition policy at consultancy Food Directions LLC.

Meanwhile, 15 other states are now considering GMO labeling laws with those in New Jersey and New York in particular fairly likely to succeed, she predicted.  

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1 comment

Vermont just label it

Posted by Dennis Kleid,

The Vermont grocers need to do what I've said months ago. Get a roll of stickers saying "partially produced by genetic engineers" and pass these out at the checkout counter so they can just label it. Make me proud! http://www.gene.com/40th/cloning-insulin

I can't wait to get a can of Campbells Soup with the label. http://www.campbellsoupcompany.com/newsroom/news/2016/01/07/labeling/

Sorry about the meatballs (see story). That could be trouble. The cows eat alfalfa laced with an EPSPS mutant enzyme, thus become GMO food according to the Organic rules. The aroA gene that encodes EPSPS has some of its nucleotides changed and they are going to be eating that DNA! When in doubt "just label it" with that sticker "partially produced by genetic engineers".

Hey, and what about us patrons? We are actively imported into the store and then we are leaving past the checkout counter unlabeled! I eat GMOs so I'm a GMO. I will put the sticker on my forehead indicating that I'm a proud GMO and ... I just labeled it.

Sorry that I'm not an exempted meatball. Note that there is no requirement in the Vermont law that you actually PAID for the offending GMO that left the store unlabeled. Those attorneys are going to have a field day. Just count the folks leaving the store and collect the moolah. I would put on the sticker!

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