VERMONT Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a first-in-the-nation law on May 8 requiring the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Under the new law, food for human consumption offered for retail sale in Vermont that is entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering must be labeled to indicate this fact, effective July 1, 2016. Violators will face penalties and further action by the state Attorney General's office.
Shumlin said he believes the bill "is the right thing to do and will gain momentum elsewhere."
To date, more than 26 states have introduced or are considering requiring, in some manner, a mandatory label for GMOs in foods.
Ben & Jerry's chief executive officer Jostein Solheim, who spoke at the bill signing ceremony, said all of his company's products will carry a label by the end of 2014 indicating that they use only non-GMO ingredients.
The law is expected to be challenged; it even contains a special fund to support the implementation and administration of the state GMO labeling law that includes costs and fees associated with a challenge in court.
The Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA) confirmed that it will be filing a lawsuit in federal court in the coming weeks against the state of Vermont to overturn the law.
"The Supreme Court's growing interest in safeguarding the constitutional rights of commercial speakers does not bode well for Vermont, and legal challenges to the Vermont law may be hard to defeat," Bert Rein, founding partner of Washington, D.C.-based law firm Wiley Rein LLP, and John Barry, a partner in the firm, wrote in an op-ed for Food Safety magazine.
In particular, the lawyers noted the recent decision in Sorrell vs. IMS Health, which detailed that "freedom of speech includes the right not to disseminate government-mandated messages unless the government can demonstrate that the required disclosure is carefully tailored to advance a substantial state interest that cannot be advanced less intrusively."
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said he anticipates constitutionality challenges of the labeling requirements.
"I can make no predictions or promises about how the courts will ultimately rule, but I can promise that my office will mount a vigorous and zealous defense of the law that has so much support from Vermont consumers," Sorrell said.
GMA said consumers who prefer to avoid GMOs have the option to choose from an array of products already in the marketplace that are labeled as certified organic, and "the government, therefore, has no compelling interest in warning consumers about foods containing GM (genetically modified) ingredients, making this law's legality suspect at best."
GMA's statement noted that the Vermont bill is "critically flawed and not in the best interests of consumers" but instead sets the nation on a "costly and misguided path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that will do nothing to advance the safety of consumers."
GMA again urged support for bipartisan federal legislation that would require a label on foods containing GMOs if the Food & Drug Administration determines that they pose a health or safety risk.
"Any labeling of GM ingredients would, therefore, be based on science, not fear or the varying politics of the 50 states," GMA said.