WASHINGTON, Feb. 4, 2015 – Even as a federal judge weighs a food industry challenge to Vermont’s mandatory biotech labeling law (see Agri-Pulse, June 18, 2014, page 2), the state’s attorney is scheduled to hear public comments today on the fine points of a proposed rule to implement the new law, the first in the nation to require most retail food labels to disclose genetically engineered ingredients.
It’s the second such hearing, scheduled after the law’s supporters complained they had not been told about a previous hearing in January. “Public comment is a vital part of the rule-making process,” said Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, “and when we heard from various folks that they had not understood the original timeline for comment, or were worried they wouldn’t get comments in before the deadline, we decided it best to provide an extended opportunity to make their formal comments.” He’ll take written comments through Feb. 12.
Briefing the state Senate Agriculture Committee last Wednesday, Sorrell sounded optimistic about the state’s chances of prevailing in U.S. District Court against a challenge by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and allied trade groups. The Rutland Herald reported that Sorrell expects Judge Christina Reiss to rule on pending motions within three months. Reiss heard oral arguments Jan. 7 on GMA’s motion for a summary judgment invalidating the law as unconstitutional and on the state’s lawyers’ motion to dismiss the case.
The outcome could turn on the standard Reiss applies to the food industry’s argument that the law infringes on its First Amendment protection against coerced speech. Vermont’s motion to dismiss the challenge is based in part on a decision by the District of Columbia appeals court to uphold USDA’s mandatory country-of-origin meat labeling rule (see Agri-Pulse, May 14, 2014, page 3). The state hopes Reiss will apply the same lenient standard for speech issues.
Easily overlooked among the assortment of legal papers filed in the case is an illuminating debate-by-deposition between scientists over whether there is a scientific consensus that biotech food is as safe as other food. Charles M. Benbrook of Washington State and Michael Antoniou of Kings College in London assert that there is no consensus. In rebuttal, Alan McHughen of the University of California-Riverside contends that the arguments of the other two – submitted to support Vermont’s dismissal motion – amount to “supposedly scientific evidence that is either stale, retracted, debunked, or otherwise rejected.” Nothing in their arguments, McHughen maintains, “serves to undermine the overall consensus concerning the safety of” food produced with genetic engineering.
GMA’s partners in the suit are the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and Snack Food Association (SFA). IDFA and GMA were plaintiffs in a successful effort to block an earlier Vermont labeling law, persuading an appeals court to invalidate a requirement for labels on dairy products from cows treated with recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST). The court ruled that consumer curiosity was not a valid reason for requiring labels.
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