National Food Industry Launches Legal Attack on Vermont’s New GMO Labeling Law

Posted June 25, 2014

MP3 Interview with Falko Schilling, consumer protection advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

gmo

In May, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the nation's first stand-alone law requiring foods made with GMOs – genetically modified organisms – sold in retail outlets to be labeled beginning in July 2016. The law applies to all foods that are genetically engineered, which are almost exclusively processed foods at this point. Vermont's Right-to-Know GMOs Coalition campaigned for the law, arguing that labeling would provide consumers transparency about the foods they purchase. Two other New England states – Connecticut and Maine – have passed GMO labeling laws, but both depend on nearby states taking similar action for them to go into effect. Almost two dozen other states have considered GMO labeling laws this year, according to Food & Water Watch, which tracks and supports such bills nationwide.

On June 13, a consortium of Big Food trade groups – the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers — filed a lawsuit against Vermont in federal court to block the law, declaring the legislation unconstitutional on the grounds that states cannot regulate commercial speech. Expecting challenges to the new law, the state legislature had already established a $1.5 million fund to defend the measure against future litigation.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Falko Schilling, consumer protection advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, based in Montpelier. Here, he describes how GMO labeling advocates succeeded in convincing lawmakers to pass the bill, what it will mean for consumers, and the outcome he expects from the lawsuit.

FALKO SCHILLING: The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association and a few other organizations decided that this was a law they want to try to stop from going into effect, so they sued the state of Vermont to try to make sure consumers are kept in the dark about what's in their food.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Several surveys show the vast majority of Americans are in favor of this food labeling, but the industry says there's no difference and labels will confuse consumers, and that's the position of the Food and Drug Administration, too, right?

FALKO SCHILLING: The FDA has basically taken a hands-off approach when it comes to regulating genetically engineered food. They allow the companies to do their own testing and then verify that these foods are safe because they see them as the same as any other food and don't see it should be any different even though these foods are ones that could not be found in nature, involve genes from other organisms that couldn't be found in nature. We have seen that over 90 percent of Americans want to see genetically engineered foods labeled; the New York Times found that, and it's just been really consistent over the last couple of years, that the vast majority of Americans want to see labels on their food, and that's what we were trying to do with this law, just give consumers some basic information to allow them to make informed decisions.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Both California and Washington state had multi-million dollar campaigns and when the efforts started a big majority of voters were in favor, but both initiatives lost. How did Vermont get this bill passed? I guess I'm not that surprised, but is it because you're Vermont?

FALKO SCHILLING: Well, I think there's a lot of reasons we were able to pass this. As you were saying, in California and Washington, there were some extremely well-funded opposition to some ballot initiatives, where they were spending record amounts of money, and also, in Washington state, the grocery manufacturers were sued for trying to hide their corporate contributions, because they were funneling millions of dollars from their members without letting the public know who was trying to keep them in the dark. But here in Vermont what we were able to do is launch the biggest grassroots efforts the state's seen in years. We were able to gather more than 30,000 signatures from Vermonters asking their representatives to label these foods, and then constituents just stayed in contact with their representatives and senators, asking them to give them the right to know what they're eating, and make informed decisions about what they're buying at the supermarket.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What was the vote, by the way?

FALKO SCHILLING: There was a number of different votes, but one of them that shows the power of our constituent outreach and talking with their legislators is that this year in the Senate, they voted this bill out on a vote of 28 to 2 in favor of labeling genetically engineered food. That was a great showing and something we're extremely proud of.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How would this affect, if at all, dairy farmers in your state? Like, if farmers use bovine growth hormone, BGH, would that be included in the bill's provisions, and are any farmers in Vermont using it?

FALKO SCHILLING: I believe a number of farmers in Vermont do use bovine growth hormone. That, to my knowledge, would not be covered under this legislation. Basically, it says that we're trying to label foods that are themselves genetically engineered, so it doesn't require a label on things like milk when a cow has eaten genetically engineered feed, but it would be required on a food that itself is genetically engineered. So if we got to the point where we're genetically engineering cows, that milk would be labeled. But as we've seen, genetically engineered salmon is likely coming on the market soon, and we'd make sure there's a label on that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What's next in this fight?

FALKO SCHILLING: Well, that this point in time we're going to be looking at ways we can make sure this law stands up and doing everything we can to defend this law in court and any other means that are available to us. We're going to be trying to work with the state, coordinating our efforts and making sure Vermont gets to see labels on genetically engineered foods.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are you expecting a huge influx of money in opposition to the law? Is that happening already?

FALKO SCHILLING: We're facing some extremely well-funded opposition on this that are going to do everything they can to keep consumers in the dark and basically use bullying tactics to try to make sure Vermonters don't know what's in their food, but we think we have the law on our side and we're going to be doing our darnedest to make sure we see labels on food in 2016.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I know organizations that promote organic food were big supporters of the labeling law, but just to be clear, this is really a different issue than whether foods are organic, right?

FALKO SCHILLING: So, organic foods cannot include genetically modified organisms, because that's excluded under the organic standards, but people can buy non-genetically engineered foods that aren't themselves organic, and that's a whole other part of the market that we're seeing expand at the moment as more and more consumers voice their concerns about these products and voice their preference for foods that aren't genetically engineered.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you know of other states where this is being actively considered, either by the legislature or by ballot initiative?

FALKO SCHILLING: Well, I know they are discussing this in the Massachusetts state house right now. There was a bill in New York that was moving along; I don't know the fate of that at this point. But we are also likely to see another ballot initiative in Oregon this November, where they're going to be bringing that vote to the people out there.

For more information on the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, visit vpirg.org.

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