Federal Judge: GMO Labeling Law Stands For Now, Case May Proceed

Apr 27, 2015

A federal judge has rejected the food industry's attempt to temporarily stop the state from implementing a law requiring labels on foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs).

But U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss has not thrown the industry's case out altogether, meaning it is likely to go to trial.  

The suit, filed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Snack Food Association and others, claims that the law violates their First Amendment rights by banning the use of "all natural" and similar phrases on the packaging of products containing GMOs while also requiring the GMO label. They say requiring the label is illegal, among other things, because it compels companies to make a political statement – because GMOs are a contentious political issue.

The ruling comes less than a week after Attorney General Bill Sorrell issued the rules outlining how the law, signed last year, will be implemented and enforced. The rules provided some insight into exactly how far the restrictions go, and what forms of speech will be restricted under the law.

Monday's ruling doesn't include a legal determination on the merits of Vermont's GMO labeling law; it was a response to a motion by the state to dismiss the case for essentially being such a long shot as to waste the court's time.

In considering the motion, Reiss wrote, the court "assumes 'all well-pleaded, non-conclusory factual allegations in the complaint to be true,'" and decides "whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement of relief."

Reiss looked in-depth at every count in the complaint to determine if they could be dismissed and did partially dismiss some aspects of the lawsuit. The argument that the state is wrongly compelling companies to make political statement, for example, didn't hold up.

In this case, that means Reiss looked at the industry's lawsuit and, assuming all factual claims were true, decided it is plausible that the groups could win, but she fell short of calling it "likely."

That last part – that it's likely the industry groups would win – was the topic of the second part of Monday's ruling. That section dealt with a response to the plaintiffs' request for an injunction that would prevent the GMO labeling law from being enforced until the lawsuit is decided.

Reiss wrote that the plaintiffs "failed to establish that they are likely to prevail at trial" as part of the reason the injunction was denied.

The ruling was anticipated by state officials and proponents of the law, who hoped the state could escape an expensive court battle with well-funded opponents. But Reiss didn't bring them the desired result. With some aspects of the case dismissed by the court, however, the ruling does slightly narrow the scope of the lawsuit.

Industry groups weren't entirely victorious either, though. The injunction they requested could have pushed back the implementation of the law – and what they allege would be a very expensive process to come into compliance - past the planned date of July 1, 2016. Since that injunction was denied, food producers now have to plan to be in compliance with the GMO labeling law by July of next year.

This post has been updated.