Judge upholds Vermont GMO labeling law while case continues

Reuters / Eduardo Munoz
A federal judge has rejected a bid by the food industry to strike down a Vermont law which would make the state the first in the country to require labeling of genetically modified foods.

The industry’s lawsuit initially asked for an injunction against the legislation, but the judge’s decision keeps the law on the books while the suit continues.

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US District Court Judge Christina Reiss on Monday ruled against the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association and other industry groups who want to block the law, scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2016. The Grocery Manufacturers Association argued in the suit that the law is unconstitutional under the First Amendment and “imposes burdensome new speech requirements on food manufacturers and retailers” over labeling.

In its decision, the court said the plaintiff’s claim of irreparable harm lacked merit, but notably it did not grant the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Neither did the court dismiss the plaintiff’s First Amendment challenge.

The court found that the “safety of food products, the protection of the environment, and the accommodation of religious belief and practices are all quintessential government interests,” as is the “desire to promote informed consumer decision-making.”

The GMA told the Associated Press it was pleased with the court decision to continue to trial when the judge “found us likely to succeed on several of our claims.”

Vermont State Attorney General William Sorrell told the AP that “There’s a lot of good news in this decision for us and for the heart and soul of the labeling law.”

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The ruling comes nearly a year after Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law Act 120, which requires manufacturers to label genetically modified organisms (GMO) and prohibits manufacturers from describing genetically engineered products as “natural.” The law would make Vermont the first state to require GMO food labeling.

A month later, on June 12, 2014, a coalition of trade associations representing food producers filed a suit against the state attorney general, governor, health commissioner and finance commissioner.

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On January 7, 2015, the court held oral argument on the state’s motion to dismiss and the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. The Court then took both motions under advisement.

Connecticut and Maine passed GMO labeling laws earlier, but both require neighboring states to also pass labeling laws before theirs would take effect. New York is considering a bipartisan GMO labeling bill that passed the Assembly’s Consumer Affairs & Protection Committee last month. Sponsors of the bill are planning to push for its passage in both houses before the legislative session ends in June. There is equally as strong opposition in both states to the bill as there is in Vermont.