The Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony this week on the likelihood of legal challenges to a proposed law requiring labels on genetically modified foods.
A GMO labeling bill was first introduced in the Vermont legislature in 2012. The current bill, introduced last year, passed in the House and is being reviewed by the Senate Judiciary committee. The bill’s text notes that federal labeling laws do not require labeling on genetically modified foods. It cites data that an estimated 80 percent of processed foods sold in the U. S. are partially produced from genetic engineering. And it argues that “Genetically engineered foods pose potential risks...and....for multiple...reasons...food produced from genetic engineering should be labeled...”. Vermont Public Interest Research Group Consumer Protection Advocate Falco Schilling. “States have the right to protect the health and safety of their citizens. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do in this bill. A number of Vermonters are concerned about the possible health and safety effects of these foods. We’re aren’t saying that they are horrible and dangerous for you. We aren’t saying they’re 100 percent safe. We’re saying that the jury’s still out and because of that labeling them is a reasonably prudent thing to do.”
Judiciary Committee Chair Richard Sears wants a legal defense fund provision included in the bill because he expects a legal challenge if the proposal becomes law.
Vermont Law School Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic Associate Director Laura Murphy is working with VPIRG. She believes the bill is strong enough to withstand any legal challenge including an attack on its disclosure requirements. “The committees have heard a lot about the potential health risks of genetically engineered foods. They’ve heard about consumers being confused about whether their foods are genetically engineered and making the wrong assumptions about that. So, protecting human heath and safety and preventing consumer confusion, those are the types of things that courts will say yes a state can require disclosure.”
Rural Vermont Director Andrea Stander says the proposed labels do not pass judgement on the use of GMOs, but merely provide the consumer with information. “Two states have passed GMO labeling laws, Connecticut and Maine. They have not been sued yet. Those two states have encumbered their GMO labeling laws with what’s come to be called trigger clauses. Their laws don’t go into effect until other states take action. What we’re trying to do here in Vermont is pass a law that gives consumers and food producers a date-certain when labeling will be required.”
Arent Fox partner Stanley Abramson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of their client, the Biotechnology Industry Organization. He says the FDA has found labeling laws like Vermont is proposing to be misleading. “When you put something like that on the food label, it suggests that that food is different in some way. And in fact very often gives the impression that it’s not as good than other foods that are on the market. In terms of the consumer wanting a choice, there are lots of non-GMO labels on food. So the consumer choices are available without the government requiring something to be on the label.”
Abramson notes that about 17 million farmers grew biotech crops on over 400 million acres worldwide last year.