A Stunning Development in the Vermont GMO Labeling Bill Most People Missed

By now, anyone following the nation’s genetically modified food ingredient debate knows that Vermont recently passed the nation’s first unequivocal state mandatory GMO food ingredient labeling law. It calls for products derived from genetically modified crops to be labeled by July 1, 2016.

The anti-GMO forces are claiming passage of the bill as a watershed event that will spread to other states and possibly Congress, who will follow Vermont’s lead and implement mandatory labeling across the country.

Industry stakeholders have indicated their willingness to pursue a legal strategy with the goal of having the law struck down on constitutional grounds. That is not surprising and has a decent chance of success according to legal scholars quoted in news reports.

It has also been widely reported that the Vermont bill authorized the creation of a $1.5 million legal fund to defend the law. What has not been widely reported is the hidden language in the bill that allows individuals and organizations to make voluntary contributions to the state’s legal defense fund.

Red flags should be popping up everywhere.  By allowing – some might say encouraging – biased individuals and special interest groups to enter the judicial process in this way is asking for trouble.

The affected companies have a right to challenge the veracity of the law. The state has the right to defend its action. Individuals and third parties like organic food producers and activist organizations have the right to file briefs with the court in support of the bill.

That is how the system works. The state uses taxpayer money to defend the legislature’s decision. The companies fund their own action. Interested parties can enter the process appropriately and pay their legal teams handsomely to do so.

The state’s labeling bill is fatally flawed, will most likely be thrown out by the courts and probably never should have been passed in the first place. But the state’s decision to perpetuate the political advocacy phase in this way opens the legislature and attorney general to national ridicule.

Vermont’s action opens the door to legislative tomfoolery, not just there, but if adopted elsewhere, in legislatures across the country. If a state has the courage of its convictions, it should be transparent in its defense, use taxpayer funds to do it and explain to taxpayers why it is in their best interest to do so. Let the public decide.

Otherwise, legislators and legislative bodies and governors can exchange kooky ideas and bad public policy, in the form of legislation, for contributions to a legal defense fund.

Vermont’s law contains not one but two bad ideas – an unwarranted mandatory labeling provision AND a ridiculous legal defense concept that taints the judicial process along the way.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, LLC, is former Executive Director of Communications & Membership Services at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and former Director of Communication at the American Beverage Association