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Recapping Round 1 of the Vermont GMO-Labeling Lawsuit

Published on: 20:33PM May 04, 2015

Millions across the globe tuned into this weekend's Mayweather-Pacquiao bout, which was billed as “the fight of the century.” However, the pay-per-view event was not the only high stakes fight to report on from last week. Far away from the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas, a federal court in Vermont issued a much-anticipated opinion in what will be one of the true fights of the century for the American food industry – whether state governments can mandate GMO labels.

On April 27, 2015, Chief Judge Christina Reiss of the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont issued an opinion that mostly favored the State of Vermont and the positions of GMO-labeling advocates. In the case, Grocery Manufacturers Association v. Sorrell (No. 5:14-cv-117), the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association, and National Association of Manufacturers (the “Plaintiffs”) are challenging Vermont’s Act 120, which requires that certain foods sold at retail stores in Vermont bear mandatory labeling if they contain genetically-engineered ingredients. Act 120 also prohibits manufacturers from advertising or labeling foods that contain genetically-engineered ingredients as “natural” or “all natural.”

Both supporters and opponents of mandatory GMO-labeling have been keeping a close eye on this lawsuit. This is because Act 120, if it survives litigation, will make Vermont the first state in the country to require that certain foods containing ingredients produced with genetic engineering bear mandatory labels. GMA v. Sorrell is the test case for this issue, which will certainly reach the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and, possibly, the Supreme Court.

The Plaintiffs challenged Act 120 from several angles. First, the Plaintiffs asserted that Act 120’s GMO-labeling mandate was unconstitutional under both the First Amendment and the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. The Plaintiffs also argued that the GMO-labeling mandate was preempted by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), and the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). Furthermore, the Plaintiffs asserted that the ban on “natural” labeling is unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause and the First Amendment.

The State of Vermont filed a motion to dismiss the Plaintiffs’ case on August 8, 2014. Subsequently, the Plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction that would halt implementation of Act 120 while the Court decides whether to issue a permanent injunction invalidating Act 120. Chief Judge Reiss heard oral arguments on both of these motions on January 7, 2015 and issued an 84-page opinion in the case last Monday.

GMO-Labeling Mandate

The Plaintiffs challenged Act 120’s GMO-labeling mandate under the First Amendment, Commerce Clause, and Supremacy Clause. Here is how the Court addressed these issues:

  • First Amendment. The Plaintiffs alleged that Act 120’s GMO-labeling mandate violated the First Amendment’s protections against unlawfully-compelled speech. The Court held that “strict scrutiny” was not warranted in this case and dismissed the Plaintiffs’ complaint to the extent that it argued strict scrutiny applied. Instead, the Court held that the proper standard is most likely the “reasonable relationship” test. Under this test, also known as the Zauderer test, the Court held that for the purposes of preliminary injunction, the Plaintiffs were not likely to succeed on their First Amendment complaints. The Court reasoned that unless Vermont’s “legislative findings” prove unfounded at the permanent injunction stage of this litigation, the State has demonstrated a reasonable relationship between the state’s interest and the GMO-labeling mandate.
  • Commerce Clause. The Plaintiffs argued that Vermont’s labeling measure violates the Constitution’s Commerce Clause because the state-based labeling measure would create an undue burden on interstate commerce, ultimately resulting in a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws. The Court was not convinced, noting that there were no other states with conflicting labeling laws. The Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ complaint to the extent that it alleged the GMO-labeling mandate was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause.
  • Supremacy Clause. The Plaintiffs asserted that the GMO-labeling mandate was preempted by the FFDCA, NLEA, FMIA, and PPIA. The Court was not convinced by the Plaintiffs’ arguments with regards to the FFDCA or the NLEA. However, the Court agreed that the FMIA and PPIA expressly preempted state standards for “[m]arking, labeling, packaging, or ingredient requirements in addition to, or different than, those mandated by federal law.” This means that processed and packaged foods that are subject to USDA inspection, such as canned soups or frozen dinners containing meat or poultry products, cannot be subject to state GMO-labeling mandates. Vermont has already conceded this issue in its final rule, which implements Act 120.

 

“Natural” Labeling Prohibition

The Plaintiffs also challenged Act 120’s prohibition on advertising and labeling of products containing genetically-engineered ingredients as “natural,” “all natural,” or words of similar import. The Plaintiffs argued that this prohibition violated the First Amendment. The Court sided with the Plaintiffs on the First Amendment argument, reasoning that prohibitions on commercial speech are subject to “intermediate scrutiny” under the Central Hudson test. The Court held that Vermont has failed to demonstrate a “substantial” state interest in prohibiting these labels. The Court also held that the “natural” labeling prohibition violated the Commerce Clause to the extent that it attempted to regulate advertising that occurred outside of Vermont.

Although the Court largely sided with the Plaintiffs on the “natural” labeling prohibition, Chief Judge Reiss did not grant a preliminary injunction on this matter, citing to a lack of proof of “irreparable harm” on the part of the Plaintiffs.

Next Steps

This first round of the litigation is certainly a setback for those in the food industry that oppose state-level GMO-labeling mandates. However, this is only the first round. The Plaintiffs have not announced their next steps. At this point, they may either (1) seek an interlocutory appeal of this decision at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, or (2) move forward to the permanent injunction stage of this litigation.

In the meantime, support is growing for the proposed Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which would preempt state GMO-labeling measures and set standards for when GMO labels could and could not be required. However, no votes have been taken on this measure and it is uncertain whether the measure has a chance of being enacted into law.

I will continue to monitor developments in this case.

John Dillard is an attorney with Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz P.C. (OFW Law), a Washington, DC-based firm that serves agricultural clients and clients with issues before federal and state courts, EPA, FDA, USDA, and OSHA.  John focuses his practice on agricultural and environmental law.  He occasionally tweets at @DCAgLawyer.  This column is not a substitute for legal advice.