The House Agriculture Committee passed H.722, an act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering. It has been the goal of the committee to work together to produce the best legislation possible that will be defensible and stand up to a challenge in court.
The Committee took five to six weeks of testimony during which time we heard from the grocers’ association, scientists, doctors, lawyers, farmers, the Food and Drug Administration, specialty food producers, and average, everyday Vermonters. On April 12, 350-400 Vermonters from all over the state came to Montpelier for a public hearing to express their views on the issue. All of the 112 people who testified were in favor of labeling food produced with genetic engineering.
That testimony was very important as we formulated our bill. It, along with the petition signed by 4,000 Vermonters, helped us develop a very critical piece – our state interests. The testimony heard at the public hearing also had a strong effect, I believe, on several of our committee members in terms of how they would ultimately vote. I sincerely thank the folks who made the long trip to Montpelier from the Windham County area – your presence was incredibly important and greatly appreciated.
We were advised by Legislative Council from the start of our work that it would be critical to include two elements in the legislation – legal findings and state interests. Given that H.722 compels commercial speech – the labeling of food – it was important to lay out a legal argument for why this should be judged differently than the 1996 International Dairy Foods Association v. Amestoy case involving recombinant bovine somatotropin (RBST). In that case, “public curiosity” was the only state interest cited and it was judged by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals not enough reason to compel labeling. An injunction on labeling was issued and Vermont then repealed the law.
Our committee was able to cite several state interests including health, safety, agriculture, and environment, as well as public curiosity, based on testimony from witnesses, including all those who attended the public hearing.
The legal findings that we included laid out an argument for why labeling of food produced with genetic engineering should be judged by the Zauderer test rather than Central Hudson (as was used in the RBST case), should this go to court.
In testimony, Rachel Lattimore, an attorney for a Washington, DC law firm representing the biotech industry told us that if this bill was passed, it would be viewed as an “imminent threat,” even with an effective date sometime in the future, and we would be sued. This reinforced the advice of Legislative Council as to why it was so very important that we carefully include the legal findings and state interests.
Some constituents have expressed frustration that this bill will probably not make it through the entire process and be signed into law this year, so it makes sense to talk about the process. House Agriculture got the bill relatively late in the session. We needed to finish our work on the Working Lands Enterprise Bill before we could start on H.722. The House Agriculture Committee is comprised of a very thoughtful, smart group of people from different walks of life who, as a group, do very careful, meticulous work on every bill we tackle, but in this case for all of the reasons cited above, we needed to be extra careful to cover all the bases.
The House Judiciary Committee will need to take a look at H.722 because it includes penalties, as well as to review the legal aspects of the bill. Due to the timeline required to conform with House/Senate rules, the clock on this legislative session will run out before the bill can make it through the whole process. The work done on H.722 is not wasted, however, because next year we can use the language painstakingly developed and introduce it again.
An election will be held this fall and those of you who care about the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering should ask the candidates running for office how they would vote on this issue.
There are those who might think it is impossible to take on big corporations. I prefer to believe that people working together will ultimately prevail. In fact, market forces have pushed back and today there is no milk being produced with added RBST in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
One of my favorite quotes is from Margaret Mead, who said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” My former district mate, Mike Obuchowski used to say “Together we govern.” I think they’re both right.