Activists question Vermont's defense of biotech label law
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WASHINGTON, July 30, 2014 - The Washington-based Center for Food Safety (CFS), characterizing itself as “the nation's leading nonprofit working on genetically engineered organisms,” and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) are casting doubt on the commitment of the State of Vermont to adequately defend a food industry suit to nullify its biotech food labeling law.
The allegations come in a memorandum arguing that U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss should allow CFS and VPIRG to intervene alongside the state's attorney general to defend the state's Act 120, the law passed by the Vermont Legislature earlier this year and signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in May (see Agri-Pulse, June 18). The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and other food industry groups have filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of the law.
Lawyers for the activist groups cite several reasons why Vermont's representation of their members' interests may be inadequate. “First, Vermont has serious financial concerns regarding the cost of this litigation,” they write. “Vermont expressly recognized its fiscal concern by . . . creating a special fund to collect donations from outside sources in order to assist in its defense and implementation of the law.” CFS and VPIRG attorneys say that state officials have estimated that the expense of litigation could range from $1 million to $5 million while the fund, as of last month, had only $15,000 in donations. They also say that the state's representation may not be adequate because it has “additional interests to consider during the course of this lawsuit.”
CFS and VPIRG should be allowed to intervene, the lawyers said, because of their expertise and their members' interest in upholding the law. “VPIRG is the largest nonprofit consumer and environmental advocacy organization in Vermont, representing over 30,000 members and supporters,” the memorandum said. “CFS has over half a million members nationwide, thousands of which reside in Vermont.” The organizations' members “need to know whether foods they eat and feed their families are genetically engineered for health, environmental, economic and other reasons, and believe the absence of such labeling is misleading,” it adds. Some are also sustainable farmers that operate food businesses, “which will be directly and indirectly economically impacted” by the requirement to label biotech ingredients, it says.
CFS cites the precedent of a federal court in Hawaii that ruled in April that its lawyers could intervene to defend a Kauai County ordinance that requires disclosure of biotech crop planting and pesticide spraying on the island on the grounds that representation of its interests “may be inadequate” in part because of the financial burden to the county to defend its ordinance. Syngenta Seeds and DuPont Pioneer have sued to challenge the constitutionality of the ordinance.
The motion to intervene was filed by Laura B. Murphy, associate director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic (ENRLC) at the private Vermont Law School, on behalf of VPIRG and by CFS attorneys George Kimbrell and Aurora Paulson. Murphy produced a comprehensive analysis in January that sought to dispel concerns that the law, called Act 120, would be invalidated by federal courts as was a 20-year-old Vermont law on dairy labeling. In that case, an appeals court held that mere consumer curiosity was not enough to justify compulsory labeling.
In their law review article, “More Than Curiosity: The Constitutionality of State Labeling Requirements for Genetically Engineered Foods,” Murphy and her colleagues seek to differentiate the current case from the earlier decision on milk from cows treated with recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST). They note that no test can determine the presence of rbST in milk while testing can disclose the presence of biotech plant material in foods.
They also assert claims, widely disputed by reputable scientific bodies, that “numerous studies have been conducted showing that there are demonstrated health risks associated with consuming genetically engineered food products.” The studies they cite claim to have shown “increased allergenicity, damage to vital organ systems, compromised immune responses and metabolic functioning, intestinal damage and infertility.” In addition, the article relies on debunked claims that suicide rates of farmers in India have increased since introduction of biotech cotton.
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