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Vermont sued for its GMO labeling law

Corn stalks in the sun
Corn stalks in the sun

A coalition of food providers, including Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers filed suit last Friday in the US District Court in Vermont asking for injunctive relief from Vermont’s new GMO food labeling law (it starts on page 34).

The impetus for this legislation is the growing anti-science movement funded by the organic foods industry that claims that GM crops are somehow dangerous and need to be regulated. Labeling such foods provides a way to stigmatize crops which are in no way different nutritionally because of the breeding techniques used to produce them. A recent study by Alessandro Nicolia’s research group looked at all the papers in the scientific literature in the past decade that examined health effects of GM crops. They found 1783 such papers, and concluded:

We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE crop safety for the last 10 years that catches the scientific consensus matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide, and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.

You can read a short summary of his work here. Another study funded by the EU arrived at similar conclusions. Further, GM crops have been grown in the United States and many other countries for over 20 years and there has not been a single verified case of harm from any such foods despite over 3 trillion meals being served.

And every major scientific organization world wide has concluded that GM crops pose no harm. You can read a summary of their statements and links to their complete position papers here.

Nonetheless, organic food manufacturers continue to press ahead with this bogus labeling effort because they recognize that such labels will stigmatize GM crops and drive people to more expensive organic foods, even though there is no evidence that organic foods are healthier, safer or more flavorful.

The Vermont bill is a good example of “fool me once…fool me twice,” because Vermont lost a similar lawsuit in 1996 in the case of International Dairy Foods v Amestoy, which held that Vermont law could not compel milk to be labeled as having been produced using rBst growth hormone when studies showed that the composition of conventional and rBst milk were identical in all respects.

The Vermont Law

The Vermont law which would take effect on July 1, 2016, requires that raw or processed foods produced entirely or partially with genetic engineering shall be labeled as “produced with genetic engineering.” Fresh foods shall be labeled at the sales point with a similar sign.

Cannily, the law exempts meat from animals that may have been fed GM crops as well as beverages. This excludes beers which are frequently brewed using genetically modified yeasts. It also excludes foods produced with enzymes which may have been produced by genetic engineerin, excluding Vermont’s substantial cheese industry which typically uses rennet from produced by genetically modified bacteria.

The law also exempts all restaurants, thus catering to Vermont’s substantial tourist business, and does nothing to deter retailers from purchasing unlabeled products out of state , where they may be cheaper.

The Lawsuit

The suit alleges that Vermont is compelling manufacturers to convey messages they do not wish to convey without anything close to sufficient justification. And, it notes, that it is forcing the costs of this “experiment” onto out-of-state companies to which it is not politically accountable, and undermining the Federal government’s interest in uniform food labeling standard prescribed by duly authorized federal agencies. Thus, the suit claims that the Act exceeds Vermont’s authority under the US Constitution and should be invalidated in its entirety.

The suit states in the Factual Background section that 93% of US soybeans and 90% of corn varieties in the US are produced from genetically modified seeds, as are 88% of cotton and half of all sugar, (from GM sugar beets). It also notes that the Hawaiian papaya was saved from major crop loss if not extinction by modifying the papaya to be resistant to the spread of a serious plant virus. Genetic engineered crops result in dramatic reductions in highly toxic pesticides and the use of much more benign herbicides.

The suit notes that the FDA ruled in 1992 and again in 2001 that it has found no basis for distinguishing foods derived from GM plants from those from non-GM plants, and thus that no labeling is warranted. Again this year, FDA commission Margaret Hamburg again confirmed that “credible scientific organization have looked hard at this issue over a long period of time” and that “the agency has not seen evidence of any health risks.”

In effect, the suit notes, Vermont has shifted the cost of this mandate to out of state companies and shifted the cost of implementing and defending the law to private individuals and creates a special fund for that purpose. This fund can accept donations from anyone without restriction, and we can well imagine that the organic industry will be happy to pay to be part of this peculiar enforcement system. Public funding to defend the law is limited to an existing $1.5 million from other settlement proceeds.

In other words, the legislature has not only sold out to the organic food industry but is allowing them to carry out the enforcement and defense of the legislation. While this is clearly an attempt to keep this ill-advised law from costing the state much money, it may in the long run cost the state even more if this “private fund” is overturned which seems likely.

And since this is much the same law as was overturned in International Dairy Foods v Amestoy case, it is likely to be overturned as well.

The suit also notes that those who disregard all the available science can still avoid GM ingredients, by simply purchasing organic foods, so that entire scheme is really unnecessary, and voluntary labeling is not precluded by any current laws.

The outcome of this suit is likely to be really interesting to follow, but the outcome seems pretty predictable. Meanwhile Connecticut has opened itself to just such an expensive suit if their labeling law takes effect when neighboring states adopt them, giving trial lawyer substantial potential income and creating even more candidates for the “Scientific Illiterate Hall of Fame.”

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