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Grocers, others, sue Vermont over law requiring labels on genetically modified food

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MONTPELIER, Vt. - The Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry groups challenged a new Vermont law in federal court Thursday that requires the labeling of food made with genetically modified organisms.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington, had been expected since Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the state's GMO labeling law last month, making Vermont the first in the nation to require the labeling.

The suit asks a judge to overturn the law and describes it as "a costly and misguided measure that will set the nation on a path toward a 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling policies that do nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers." The lawsuit claims that food made with GMOs is safe and says the Vermont law exceeds the state's authority under the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled that food from genetically modified plants is not materially different from other food. But critics of GMO foods consider them environmentally suspect and a possible health threat.

Maine and Connecticut also have adopted GMO label laws, but their laws require neighbouring states to follow suit before their requirements go into effect. New York lawmakers are working on a GMO labeling bill, as well. And if it becomes law, Connecticut's law would automatically take effect.

The Vermont law, due to take effect in two years, calls for the labeling of processed GMO foods and for retailers to post signs on displays of unpackaged genetically engineered foods. It also sets a civil penalty of $1,000 per day per product for "false certification." The entire product, not each individual item or package, would be subject to the penalty.

Restaurants would be exempt from the requirements.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said Thursday he hadn't seen the lawsuit, but his office has been preparing to defend the law and "we're ready to fight."

Shumlin said Vermont will continue to push for what he calls common-sense labeling on packaged foods that contain GMOs.

"Now, as we expected all along, that fight will head to the courts," he said.

When Shumlin signed the GMO labeling legislation last month he announced the creation of a website to help the state raise money to pay for the legal battle, which could cost the state millions. It's unclear how much money is in the fund.

The grocers also argue that it would be difficult if not impossible for the industry to meet the requirements of the new law.

"They must revise hundreds of thousands of product packages, from the small to the super-sized," the suit said. "Then, they must establish Vermont-only distribution channels to ensure that the speech Vermont is forcing them to say, or not say, is conveyed in that state."

Many in the food industry say the GMO technology boosts food production and its use is less environmentally harmful than traditional farming methods.

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