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Sorrell Braces For Lawsuit If GMO Bill Becomes Law

AP File/Toby Talbot
A customer shops for produce at the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier in April, 2013. Legislation that would require labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is scheduled to come up for debate in the Vermont Senate on Tuesday.

There’s a good possibility that Vermont will become the first state in the country to require the labeling of food products made with GMOs.

The legislation was passed by the House last year by a wide margin. This year, three Senate committees have given their strong support to the bill.

"I will be very surprised if we are not sued." - Attorney General Bill Sorrell

The proposal is scheduled to come up for debate on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

If the bill passes and is signed into law, Attorney General Bill Sorrell says it’s likely that some of the country’s major food processors will join together to sue the state of Vermont in an effort to block the bill from taking effect.

“I’ll be very surprised if we are not sued if the Legislature goes ahead and enacts a mandatory GMO labeling statute,” said Sorrell. “A lot of people might not realize that this is arguably a free speech issue.”

Sorrell says the key to winning the court case is for the state to convince a federal judge that the danger of consuming GMO products outweighs the company’s right to not be required to label these products.

He says that’s how the state was able to win a lawsuit several years ago over a bill that required the labeling of products that contain mercury.

“We won on mercury because the court found that clearly mercury is essentially a poison, it’s hugely toxic,” said Sorrell. “And there was a legitimate government interest in consumers knowing that the products they were buying contained mercury.”

But Sorrell notes that the state wasn’t successful when it defended legislation that called for the labeling of dairy products that were produced with milk from cows that had been given bovine growth hormones.

“Because the court found that there wasn’t sufficiently compelling evidence of risk or harm from products containing bovine growth hormone and consequently the governmental interest did not outweigh the first amendment protection of the dairy industry so our law was truck down there.”

Sorrell says the state could be on the hook for several million dollars in legal fees if it loses in court. 

That’s why the bill creates a special legal defense fund that will be financed using money that the state is awarded from other legal settlements.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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