BRATTLEBORO -- In mid-June, four organizations filed suit against the state for its approval of Act 120, which requires food manufacturers to label products that include genetically engineered ingredients.
The organizations -- the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the Association of Manufacturers -- contend the act violates their First Amendment rights by compelling them to "use their labels to convey an opinion with which they disagree ..."
The Vermont law, due to take effect in two years, calls for the labeling of processed foods with genetically engineered ingredients and for retailers to post signs on displays of unpackaged genetically engineered foods.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Attorney General Bill Sorrell, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Harry Chen, the commissioner of the Department of Health, and James Reardon, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Finance and Management.
The plaintiffs are asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont to invalidate Act 120 and enjoin the state from enforcing it. In addition, they claim, Act 120 violates the Commerce Clause because it attempts to regulate interstate traffic, which is the sole jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress.
The trade groups call the Vermont law "a costly and misguided measure that will set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers."
The Legislature has set aside for the bill's legal defense $1.5 million from settlements reached between the Attorney General's Office and third parties, but state officials estimate it could cost up to $8 million to defend the legislation. The $1.5 million is targeted for the first year of litigation, according to filings before the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont, and the Attorney General's Office is not restricted from requesting more money when needed. Recently, the state hired the Washington, D.C., law firm of Russell, Englert, Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber to help defend Act 120.
When Shumlin signed the labeling legislation in May, he announced the creation of a website to help the state raise money to pay for the legal battle.
Sarah Clark, the deputy commissioner of finance and management, said as of Aug. 8, the Vermont Food Fight Fund had accumulated $168,000 in donations.
"This is a lot of money to be raised in such a small amount of time," she said, adding most of the money has come from individuals.
Since the fund was introduced, Clark said more than 1,000 people and organizations around the world have donated.
"There is no limit on the contributions that can be made," she told the Reformer.
According to VTDigger, contributors include MoveOn.org, at $52,000; the Ceres Trust, out of Minnesota, at $50,000; Stonyfield Farm, at $5,000; the Vermont Community Foundation, at $2,000; the Big Carrot, a natural foods co-op in Toronto, at $1,000; and Gov. Peter Shumlin, at $100.
In addition, Ben & Jerry's announced it would rename its fudge brownie flavor for the month of July and donate $1 for every scoop of "Food Fight Fudge Brownie" sold in Burlington and Waterbury.
Ben & Jerry's is owned by Unilever, which is a member of the GMA, according to VTDigger. Stonyfield Farms is a member of the International Dairy Association, which is also a member of GMA.
Rob Roper, president of the free-market think tank The Ethan Allen Institute, told Vermont Watch Dog, donations from MoveOn.org and others outside of the state is part of a troubling pattern in which national special interest groups treat Vermonters as "political lab rats."
"The leadership that we now have in office is aiding and abetting (national special interests) and turning our state into a petri dish -- whether the people in the state are in favor of these policies or not," he said. "If you're for GMO labeling or opposed to GMO labeling, everyone in Vermont should be on the same side that we should determine these issues on our own. We shouldn't be farming out our policies, and the funding of those policies, to anybody -- including organizations like MoveOn.org."
But Sorrell told the Reformer that the Ethan Allen Institute's argument is ridiculous.
"We've got large, very well-funded national organizations fighting Act 120. Maybe the Ethan Allen Institute doesn't like the idea of people contributing to the Vermont Food Fight Fund, but we wonder if they would feel the same way if the Koch Brothers or some other wealthy conservative organization was dumping money into public issues in Vermont."
To donate to the public fund, visit foodfightfundvt.org.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.