GMO Labeling on the Horizon? Vermont Senate Passes Labeling Bill, Gears Up for Litigation

On Wednesday, the Vermont Senate overwhelmingly passed HB 112, a bill that would require the labeling of all food sold in the state containing genetically modified ingredients and meant for human consumption. Notably, the bill does not apply to food intended for consumption by animals or meat products from animals raised on genetically modified food. Should the bill pass the House again, it will be delivered to Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has previously indicated that he will sign the bill. According to the Burlington Free Press, several lawmakers, including Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, have acknowledged that the bill is likely to incite several lawsuits from food manufacturers. To counter any anticipated litigation, the measure would specifically create a fund for defending the law in court. If enacted, Vermont would become the first state in the nation to require specific labeling of foods containing GMO products. It would take effect July 2016.

While Vermont may be the first state to effectively require the labeling of GMOs, it is not the first to pass legislation requiring the label. Earlier this year, Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage ceremoniously signed LD 718, a bill that would require labeling GMO products as such under the condition that at least five other states adopt similar statutes first. Governor LePage’s support of this bill is especially surprising, considering the high number of bills passed by the Democratic Legislature that he has vetoed during his tenure. Connecticut also passed a similar bill, HB 6527, in 2013. That bill would require GMO labeling once a critical mass of four other states have adopt similar statutes. Additionally, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that recently-introduced federal legislation would give the FDA more leeway in determining if a genetically modified product should be labeled. According to Stateline, 67 similar bills have been introduced across 25 states.

Indeed, one only needs to look at California’s 2012 failed ballot measure, Proposition 37, which would have made the Golden State the first in the nation to require GMO labeling. The initiative narrowly failed but attracted significant political attention by attracting over $55 million in total donations – including over $46 million coming from large corporations opposed to the measure – quickly became the most expensive ballot initiative in the nation’s history. This level of funding underscores the importance of the issue to interested parties and serves as a warning of the well-funded wrath Vermont and other states may endure as a result. Should Vermont’s bill pass as expected, only two additional states would be required for Connecticut and Maine’s statutes to take effect. This is further exacerbated by the fact that 2014 is an election year, leaving lawmakers vulnerable. Additionally, this year marks the end of the legislative biennium for most states, clearing the slate for fresh initiatives. Looking to 2015 will be critical for those on both sides of the issue.

The GMO movement is not likely to go away anytime soon. As Vermont Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell told a gathering of Attorney’s General recently, “It’s coming to a number of your states…. The politics are huge. Good luck.”