Vermont GMO label case likely headed for trial

by Erica Shaffer
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BURLINGTON, Vt. – A US District Court judge ruled against food retail industry groups that sought to block Act 120, Vermont's GMO labeling law from going into effect on July 1, 2016. However the judge also ruled that industry groups are likely to prevail on other claims, meaning the case is likely to go to trial.

In July 2014, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), along with the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers, filed a lawsuit over the state's law requiring labeling of food made with genetically modified organisms. Under Vermont's Act 120, labels are required on foods that are produced entirely or partially with genetic engineering. Industry groups argued that Act 120 infringes on their First Amendment rights by banning the use of the terms "natural" or similar words and phrases on foods produced with GMO ingredients. 

US District Court Judge Christina Reiss dismissed industry stakeholders’ claims that Act 120 violates the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. The court also declined to apply a standard of strict scrutiny making easier for the attorney general to rebut some First Amendment claims submitted by the industry.

In her ruling, Judge Reiss wrote that the industry groups offered no persuasive evidence that Act 120 would cause irreparable harm to their members in order to comply with Act 120's “natural” restriction and its prohibition on “any words of similar import.”

“Indeed, other than unspecific allegations in their Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs provide no evidence of any member's actual use of the “natural” terminology or “any words of similar import” in conjunction with GE product,” Judge Reiss wrote in her opinion.

“Manufacturers are being harmed, and they are being harmed now,” GMA said in a statement. “Act 120 is unconstitutional and imposes burdensome new speech requirements on food manufacturers and retailers. It will also set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that will be costly and confusing for consumers.”

However, the judge found that industry groups were likely to succeed on some of their First Amendment challenges to Act 120.

“While we are pleased that the District Court found us likely to succeed on several of our claims, we are nevertheless disappointed by the court’s ultimate decision to deny our Motion for Preliminary Injunction to block the implementation of the Vermont GMO labeling law— Act 120 — on grounds that the manufacturers had not yet shown a sufficient degree of harm,” GMA said. “We are reviewing this decision and considering our legal options.”

GMA also argued that Vermont has no compelling interest in labeling foods that contain GM ingredients because consumers who prefer to avoid foods with GM ingredients can choose from a variety of products labeled certified organic. The court disagreed.

"The safety of food products, the protection of the environment, and the accommodation of religious beliefs and practices are all quintessential governmental interests as is the State's desire “to promote informed consumer decision-making,” the court ruled.
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