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Jan Lee headshot

Big Food Battles Vermont Over GMO-Labeling Law

Words by Jan Lee

The recently launched, four-pronged suit against the state of Vermont’s genetically modified organism (GMO)-labeling law comes as no surprise. Last week, a group of the country’s largest grocery organizations filed suit against Vermont for its passage of a law (Act 120) requiring all manufacturers to label those products that contain GMO ingredients.

Big Food four stand up for GMO

The four “Big Food” companies -- the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers -- allege that Vermont’s newly minted law contravenes federal law and cites the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the right of free speech and the commerce clause. It also cites the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment for Act 120’s “vagueness” in its prohibition of the use of certain words, such as natural, and other descriptors that the Vermont law has deemed confusing to consumers.

The plaintiffs defend their suit based on four counts relating to labeling mandates, alleged marketing restrictions and violations of the commerce clause. They have argued that Act 120 imposes unreasonable requirements on food manufacturing companies, which would be required to amend the labels on thousands of products before the act goes into effect on July 1, 2016.

GMA: The consumer already has the tools

They also assert that the state has acted beyond its capacity and that provisions already exist at the federal level for the consumer to make informed decisions, called the Organic Food Production Act.

“The Act appears not to recognize that the USDA has established the very system that the Act suggests is missing. Under the USDA’s “certified organic” program, food that qualifies for the certified organic label cannot be produced using GE plants or GE derived ingredients,” says the suit. It also suggests that voluntary labeling through programs like the Non-GMO Project already provides a voluntary method for consumers to select foods that don’t contain GMOs.

The power of commerce

It’s no surprise that the plaintiffs have hinged this suit on the powers of the federal commerce clause. It’s a popular tactic these days, as North Dakota demonstrated last May with its controversial suit against Minnesota’s New Energy Act. At the same time that Vermont’s GMO-labeling bill was moving through the state legislature last April, another issue was being fought out in Minnesota district court that would virtually upend the state’s efforts to regulate the purchase of “dirty” coal power. Stating that the New Energy Act regulated issues that were under the purview of the federal commerce clause, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Richards Nelson enjoined the state from enforcing parts of the law, effectively stalling some of the boldest efforts made to date to curb carbon emissions by power companies. In effect: Minnesota’s clean energy law conflicted with the Constitution.

In both situations, the power of the consumer to decide what is sold within his or her state has been placed at odds with federal agencies which many states say are failing to step up to the demands of their constituents – despite voters’ efforts to get federal laws enacted, first. In the case of GMA et al vs. Vermont, the plaintiffs allege that consumer desires and voting bloc expectations aren’t enough reason to provide manufacturing transparency.

Federal organic laws: A chicken-and-egg story

Interestingly, although the suit mentions the “certified organic” program, it fails to mention that federal organic laws were actually the outgrowth of enforced state regulations in California. This leads to a quandary not unlike the chicken-and-egg story: If states don’t have the right to regulate the foods imported and sold within their borders (except when there are proven safety issues at hand), then why has California been successful in regulating food production through laws enacted by the ballot box? And why did the federal government think it was such a great idea to pattern the majority of its regulations after California’s already-enforced laws?

The suit also doesn't mention the fact that a fair number of states have their own organic certification programs and regulations in force, which the USDA points out, "may also add more restrictive requirements due to specific environmental conditions or the necessity of production and handling practices in that State."

Where's Monsanto?

When this suit was announced, a number of advocacy groups jumped on board to alert consumers that “Monsanto had launched a suit against Vermont." Most publications do, in fact, point out that the suit is being launched by four associations, but few advocacy groups or publications have asked why Monsanto’s name is conspicuously absent from the lawsuit.

While advocacy organizations have worked hard over the past few years to link Monsanto to the GMA, the association has worked just as hard – particularly recently – to limit information about its membership, or whether Monsanto is in fact a voting member.

The list of plaintiffs on a court document such as this speaks volumes about the strength that a suit may have, but it also says a lot about just what those who fund its launch is expecting from the public, and what they may feel could be most vulnerable if consumers really don’t agree with their principles. The fact that the four associations are fighting the good fight for Monsanto’s interest but haven’t mentioned Monsanto’s membership unfortunately may not make it any easier for consumers to swallow the concept of GMO engineering.

And, as the suit has boldly pointed out, American consumers are quite adept at finding ways of moving away from products they don’t trust. With a rising number of countries rejecting or restricting GMO food manufacture and/or imports, clear labeling laws may turn out to be the easiest and least expensive compromise for all sides.

Image courtesy of GreggAvedon.com

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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