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Food Lobby Colossus Sues Vermont over GMO 'Right to Know'

Powerful lobbyist groups claim 'free speech' as they file suit against law that says consumers should know what's in their food

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin last month signed Vermont's first-in-the-nation GMO labeling bill into law on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier. Joining him was Brigid Armbrust, 11, of West Hartford (in black), who launched a letter-writing campaign in support of GMO labeling. (Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger)

Vermont's Attorney General William Sorrellon has said his office is ready for a "heck of a fight" after some of the most powerful members of the nation's food industry filed suit on Thursday challenging the state's new law that requires the labeling of packaged food containing genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.

"Every U.S. citizen should be concerned when a multi-billion dollar corporate lobbying group sues in federal court to overturn a state's right to govern for the health and safety of its citizens." —Ronnie Cummins, OCA

Though not unexpected, the official filing of the federal lawsuit (pdf) against Vermont—brought by Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers—marks the beginning of a legal battle that could have far-reaching implications in the national fight over GMO food.

Vermont's new GMO labeling mandate, passed by the state legislature in April and signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin in May, is the first of its kind in the nation and requires labeling of most products containing genetically-altered ingredients by 2016.

"The people of Vermont have said loud and clear they have a right to know what is in their food," said Falko Schilling, a consumer protection advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.


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Despite the public's widespread support for the law, the food industry lobbyists are challenging the labeling requirement on free speech grounds.

"Act 120 imposes burdensome new speech requirements — and restrictions — that will affect, by Vermont's count, eight out of every ten foods at the grocery store," said the GMA in a statement on Thursday.

But Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, defended the Vermont law and said the industry lawsuit was simply an example of large corporate interests trying to intimidate other states who are now considering labeling laws of their own.

As Cummins told the Burlington Free Press: "Every U.S. citizen should be concerned when a multi-billion dollar corporate lobbying group sues in federal court to overturn a state's right to govern for the health and safety of its citizens."

Just last week, a national poll conducted by Consumer Reports showed an overwhelming majority of U.S. consumers (more than 90 percent) think that before GMO food is sold it should be labeled accordingly. Numerous other polls in recent years have shown similar levels of support and the "right to know" movement that supports labeling has focused on state-level laws as a way to forge progress outside of Washington, DC. where the food industry holds considerable power and influence.

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