Vermont was sued by the packaged food industry in the first of what may be a series of lawsuits to block labeling requirements for products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Vermont last month became the first state in the U.S. to make GMO labeling mandatory, following failed attempts to pass similar laws in California and Washington. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and three other groups, in a lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court in Rutland, Vermont, said the law violates free speech rights and conflicts with federal findings that GMOs are safe.
Half of U.S. consumers are concerned about the safety of genetically modified foods, according to research by NPD Group Inc. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has rejected calls to mandate special labeling for GMOs, while allowing food makers to voluntarily say on packaging whether foods don’t contain GMOs, as long as those statements are truthful.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, based in Washington, represents at least 300 food, beverage and consumer products companies, including Kraft Foods Group Inc., General Mills Inc. and Mondelez International Inc.
Nicholas Fereday, a Rabobank International analyst in New York, said in a note issued in May that he expects GMO labeling requirements to “continue to gain momentum and prominence.”
While Vermont’s population is small -- about 627,000 -- its law could prompt other states to follow. Connecticut and Maine have passed GMO labeling laws that are triggered when certain numbers of other states enact such requirements.
Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell said in a phone interview today that his office had been preparing for the legal challenge and will defend the law, which he described as being akin to requirements that calories, salt and sugar content be displayed on labels.
“We’re very early in what’s very likely to be a long fight,” he said.
Set to take effect in July 2016, the Vermont law would impose a fine of $1,000 for violations. The labeling requirement wouldn’t apply to many food categories, including meat, milk, restaurant fare and raw agricultural commodities that aren’t grown with genetically modified seed.
The law would also ban food makers from advertising products as “natural” when they contain GMO ingredients.
“The state is compelling manufacturers to convey messages they do not want to convey, and prohibiting manufacturers from distributing their products in terms of their choosing, without anything close to a sufficient justification,” the trade groups said in their complaint yesterday.
To comply with the law, food makers may have “no choice but to revise the labels for all of their products, no matter where they might be sold in the United States,” the groups said.
The U.S. has been “at the forefront” of developing genetically engineered crops, according to the complaint.
Almost all soybeans and corn grown in the U.S. in 2013 came from genetically engineered crops, which may have been altered to withstand herbicides, repel pests or display other helpful characteristics, according to the complaint.
“If a person lives in the United States for any period of time and does not restrict all of her food purchases to organic food, she is almost certainly consuming ingredients derived from GE plants on a daily basis,” according to the complaint.
The case is Grocery Manufacturers Association v. Sorrell, 5:14-cv-00117, U.S. District Court, District of Vermont (Rutland).