In 2014, the Vermont legislature passed a genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling law. It was signed into law with an effective date of July 1, 2016. Under the law, retailers can only sell food with an appropriate label if the food (whether raw or processed) has had its genetic material altered. The labeling requirement is placed on manufacturers of packaged foods and on retailers for food that is not separately packaged. With respect to bulk food, the label must conspicuously appear on the shelf or bin where the raw food is sold. Manufacturers are also barred from labeling GMO food as “natural.” The law’s purported purpose is to provide consumer information and prevent consumer confusion and deception. Various food manufacturers and their lobby groups sued, seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional under the First Amendment and as unduly burdening interstate commerce. They also claimed that federal labeling laws preempted the provision. The plaintiffs also claimed that it is virtually impossible to manufacture many foods with non-GE sources, and that the availability of non-GE products did not meet demand. As such, the plaintiffs claimed that they will be forced to relabel the “vast majority” of their products at significant expense. As a result, the plaintiffs claimed that smaller manufacturers would not be able to bear the additional costs, would go out of business, and market competition in Vermont would suffer.
The defendants motioned to dismiss the case, and the plaintiffs asked the court for a preliminary injunction, specifically asking the court to enjoin enforcement of the law. The court granted in part and denied in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims asserting a violation of the dormant commerce clause. The court ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to assert a plausible claim that the law clearly discriminates against interstate commerce. The burden imposed on interstate commerce, the court found, was no different than the burden placed on intrastate commerce. The court also dismissed several of the plaintiffs’ preemption claims, but allowed several others, namely those alleging preemption by Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act, to continue. The court also allowed the First Amendment claims to continue, although the court seemed inclined to dismiss the claim that challenged the law’s disclosure requirements. Specifically, the court stated that the law bore a reasonable relationship to the harm it sought to prevent - the deception of customers. The question to be resolved later will be whether a “substantial governmental” interest is required to be established. The court also found that the plaintiffs had stated a plausible claim that the “natural” restriction violated their members’ First Amendment rights.
The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, finding that they had not shown persuasive evidence that their members would prevail on the merits and that they would suffer irreparable harm absent enjoinment of the enforcement of the law. Grocery Manufacturers Assoc. v. Sorrell, No. 5:14-cv-117, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56147 (D. Vt. Apr. 27, 2015).