Our Opinion: The labeling on the wall


We all knew this day was coming. The state even created a contingency fund to prepare for it.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry groups filed suit Thursday afternoon against the state of Vermont for Act 120, which requires food manufacturers to label products that include genetically engineered ingredients. The organizations contend the act violates their First Amendment rights by compelling them to "use their labels to convey an opinion with which they disagree ...."

The suit asks a judge to overturn the law and describes it as "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 lawsuit says the Vermont law exceeds the state's authority under the U.S. Constitution, and that it would be difficult if not impossible for the industry to meet the requirements.

"They must revise hundreds of thousands of product packages, from the small to the super-sized," the suit said. "Then, they must establish Vermont-only distribution channels to ensure that the speech Vermont is forcing them to say, or not say, is conveyed in that state."

More than half of all processed foods contain ingredients made or derived from genetically engineered crops, the Associated Press reports. Genetic modifications to a plant can improve its quality, hardiness or resistance to pests or disease. Many in the food industry say the GMO technology boosts food production and its use is less environmentally harmful than traditional farming methods.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled that food from genetically modified plants is not materially different from other food. But critics of GMO foods consider them environmentally suspect and a possible health threat. They argue that people have a right to know what is in the food they eat.

When Gov. Peter Shumlin signed Act 120 last month Vermont became the first in the nation to make the requirement a state law. Fully anticipating that a law suit would be filed, the state set up a $1.5 million legal fund to defend itself in court, and other groups like the Vermont Public Interest Research Group are rallying to raise money as well.

Fortunately, it looks like Vermont will not have to go it alone for much longer. A number of states either have already passed a GMO labeling requirement or are in the process of doing so. Maine and Connecticut have adopted GMO label laws that require neighboring states to follow suit before their requirements go into effect. New York lawmakers are working on a GMO labeling bill, as well. With a population of 20 million, New York could send a strong signal to the more than two dozen other states where labeling legislation has been introduced, the AP notes. And if New York's bill becomes law, Connecticut's law would automatically take effect.

Similar bills have been introduced this year in more than two dozen other states, including California, where voters rejected a proposed labeling law two years ago after an expensive campaign by opponents. Dozens of nations including the members of the European Union already have GMO labeling laws.

Meanwhile, right-to-know advocates in Oregon and Colorado are gathering signatures to place measures on the November ballot. Both of these states have a good shot at convincing voters to pass GMO labeling, public health lawyer Michele Simon wrote in The Huffington Post.

"Lobbyists are continuing their efforts to undercut states' rights in Washington, D.C.," Simon wrote. "The best way to head off a watered down federal ‘solution' is to show the strength of the movement at the state level. As we learned in California and Washington (states that narrowly lost GMO labeling initiatives despite being massively outspent) every debate draws more attention to the issue and weakens Big Biotech's undue influence over our food supply."

Dave Murphy, founder of Food Democracy Now! agrees: "When Oregon and Colorado pass this fall, the FDA and politicians in Washington, D.C., won't be able to ignore this issue any longer."

We suspect the biotech food giants are running just a little bit scared these days because the tide of public opinion definitely is working against them, and it's looking more and more like David just might win this fight.


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