The Heritage Foundation

Legal Memorandum #166 on Legal Issues

November 24, 2015

November 24, 2015 | Legal Memorandum on Legal Issues

Vermont Lawsuit a Test Case for GMO-Labeling Laws and the First Amendment

Vermont’s Act 120, scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2016, is the country’s third mandatory-labeling law for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). State GMO-labeling laws raise substantial questions under First Amendment jurisprudence. Immediately following passage of the Vermont law, various industry groups filed suit in federal district court, claiming that the law violates the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, and the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution and also claiming that the law is preempted by federal statute. Plaintiffs allege that the labeling requirements force the manufacturers to make statements they do not want to make, prohibit them from making statements they do want to make, are not rational, discriminate against out-of-state manufacturers, and interfere with the federal food-labeling regulatory regime.

Key Points

  1. Genetically modified organism–labeling laws raise serious economic and First Amendment concerns.
  2. GMO-labeling laws are a form of governmental speech compulsion that is generally disfavored by courts. However, commercial speech has been underprotected by the courts, as it is seen to be less important than other types of speech.
  3. Mandating GMO labeling raises First Amendment vagueness concerns because “GMO” is not easily defined. The term “natural” is also vague, and labeling requirements in this area risk chilling the speech of manufacturers.
  4. Determining whether a particular state GMO law is preempted may not be settled without litigation, the outcome of which is uncertain. This is an additional cost imposed on taxpayers and businesses.
  5. Both states and the federal government have interests in regulating food safety, and Congress should exercise its own independent judgment as to whether to preempt state law in this area.

On May 8, 2014, Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont signed Act 120 into law.[1] This law will become enforceable on July 1, 2016, and is one of the country’s first mandatory-labeling laws for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).[2] Connecticut and Maine also have passed GMO-labeling laws, and similar bills have been introduced in many other state legislatures.[3]

The Vermont law requires that any food offered for sale must be labeled a GMO if it is “entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering.” The law also prohibits such food from being labeled “natural” and sets out statutory damages of “not more than $1,000.00 per day, per product.”[4]

Immediately following passage of this law, various industry groups filed suit in federal district court, claiming that the law violates the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, and the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution and also claiming that the law is preempted by federal statute.[5] Plaintiffs allege that the labeling requirements force the manufacturers to make statements they do not want to make, prohibit them from making statements they do want to make, are not rational, discriminate against out-of-state manufacturers, and interfere with the federal food-labeling regulatory regime.

This lawsuit is instructive because mandatory GMO labeling raises various legal and political issues. At the heart of the controversy are two fundamental questions:

  • When and how can government force businesses to make statements they do not want to make or prohibit them from making statements they do want to make? (Put another way, do U.S. companies have First Amendment rights to use labels of their choice?)
  • In today’s complicated economy, which level of government—state or federal—is best equipped to regulate food labels within constitutional limits?

GMOs in Brief

While most consumers might think they know what the designation “GMO” means, they might be surprised to learn that almost all of the food they eat has been genetically modified.[6] For millennia, farmers have domesticated animals for breeding and consumption and have done the same, through testing and careful selection, with crops. The careful selection and breeding of animals and crops indisputably modifies the genes of plants and animals found in nature. The corn that humans eat today, for example, was originally domesticated in Mesoamerica over 4,500 years ago and has slowly been genetically modified to produce large, edible corn kernels. The various varieties of apples are more recent: The Macintosh, for example, dates back to 1811.

While these are not the types of GMO foods that activists are targeting, it turns out that distinguishing this type of traditional genetic modification from genetic modification in a laboratory is quite difficult. Even if it could be done, it is not clear what the benefit would be. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has repeatedly declined either to define GMOs as “natural” or to identify any differential safety risk. In fact, as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has noted, “When we require a label on something, we’re either warning there’s a potential safety problem or we’re giving nutritional information. GMO labeling doesn’t fit. There’s not a safety issue, and it doesn’t affect nutrition.”[7]

The First Amendment’s Unclear Role in Food Labeling

There are at least two major First Amendment problems with mandatory GMO labeling that must be taken seriously: “compelled speech” and “vagueness.”

Compelled Speech. The government generally faces a high bar when forcing people to speak.[8] The First Amendment protects not just the right to speak, but also the right not to speak. It would do no good to be allowed to say, “I do not support candidate X for President” if the government could immediately require you to say, “but I do support candidate X.” Although many, most notably Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas,[9] have criticized this distinction, the courts generally accord speech related to commercial transactions less protection than they accord other forms of speech, such as religious or “core” political speech.[10]

As laid out by the Supreme Court in Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation v. Public Service Commission, commercial speech that is not false or deceptive and does not relate to illegal activities may be restricted only “in the service of a substantial governmental interest, and [may be restricted] only through means that directly advance that interest.”[11] This type of “intermediate scrutiny” of restrictions on commercial speech should be contrasted with the higher, “strict scrutiny” standard that the government must meet when restricting other types of speech, such as political speech, which requires the government to prove that its proposed action is necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.

This weaker First Amendment protection for commercial speech trickles into the compelled speech area as well. In Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of the Supreme Court of Ohio, a case involving compelled disclosure of attorney contingency-fee arrangements, the Supreme Court upheld certain compelled speech under a “rational basis” test that is even less protective than the Central Hudson test.[12] In Zauderer, the Supreme Court set forth a test for determining when compulsory information disclosure regimes are constitutional: Mandating disclosure of “purely factual and uncontroversial information” can pass First Amendment muster so long as the disclosure requirements are “reasonably related to the State’s interest in preventing deception to consumers.”[13] In other words, while core political speech is highly protected by the First Amendment and commercial speech is somewhat less protected, the government is usually allowed to compel a business to disclose factual information in order to prevent deception.

There is, however, some ambiguity about the scope and applicability of the Zauderer test that the Supreme Court has yet to clarify. Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled en banc that country-of-origin labeling of meat mandated by a Department of Agriculture rule—very similar in operation to GMO labeling—could satisfy the Zauderer test even though the governmental interest at issue in that case did not involve preventing deception. Rather, the interest involved was primarily one of facilitating an educated consumer choice about safety and assisting consumers who might wish to “Buy American.”

The D.C. Circuit ruled that, absent a showing that compelled disclosure of certain factual information is “unduly burdensome,” the compelled disclosure of factual information in a business setting will “almost always” pass First Amendment muster, no matter what the governmental interest at issue might be.[14] Other circuits have issued similar rulings, which means that unless the Supreme Court intervenes, this type of First Amendment challenge will most likely fail.[15]

Information disclosure is something of a fad these days. In the GMO context, there are certainly possible harms in requiring “disclosure,” and perhaps these harms are even intended.[16] For example, disclosure requirements might be intended to impose high compliance costs on companies that sell food or crops that have been genetically modified (at least in ways that “natural food” competitors do not like) or to artificially depress demand for such products by scaring the consumer base into believing that such products are not healthy or safe.

Vagueness. Aside from compelled speech claims, there are other types of First Amendment claims that might be more successful. When an ordinary citizen cannot be sure whether his or her speech falls within the scope of a law, that law can be considered unconstitutionally vague.[17] Since “GMO” (not to mention “natural”) is difficult, if not impossible, to define adequately, such laws might confuse manufacturers and prompt many of them to include labels just to be on the safe side and avoid the penalties that could come from violating the law. This could rise to the level of impermissible vagueness, and such a claim is pending in the Vermont lawsuit.[18]

Specifically, the Vermont labeling law prohibits manufacturers from calling their GMO products “natural,” “naturally made,” “naturally grown,” “all natural,” or “any words of similar import that would have a tendency to mislead a customer.” However, the statute does not define these terms. Even assuming that such a prohibition is a permissible regulation under Central Hudson, it appears to give no guidance to businesses and could be unconstitutionally vague.

State and Federal Interests in Regulating

It is clear that, at least according to the U.S. Constitution, both the states and the federal government have authority to regulate food labeling. This is a classic case of “concurrent authority.” The core of states’ so-called police power is the authority to secure the health, safety, and morals of their citizens.[19] All states have consumer-protection laws as well. Further, the federal government is most likely authorized to regulate food labeling in interstate commerce under the current understanding of the Commerce Clause.[20]

Yet where concurrent authority exists, there is always a possibility of conflict, and Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution establishes that federal law is “the supreme law of the land.” Where there is a conflict between a valid state law and a valid federal law, federal law preempts state law.

Determining when there is a conflict is not always a simple matter, and the Supreme Court has developed a body of law to determine when federal law preempts state law. In the context of GMO labeling, there are numerous federal laws that might preempt state law. They include the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,[21] the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA),[22] the Federal Meat Inspection Act,[23] the Poultry Products Inspection Act,[24] the Plant Protection Act,[25] and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.[26] These laws create a complex web of provisions, rendering it difficult in individual instances to determine whether the federal government has preempted state law and thereby precluded the states from regulating in this area.

One clear case of preemption appears in the NLEA, which has been interpreted by the federal courts explicitly to preempt any state labeling requirement that is not parallel to or identical with FDA labeling requirements in a variety of areas. One area that has been preempted under the NLEA is labeling claims related to nutritional value or health effects.[27] In other words, a state cannot impose additional nutritional-labeling requirements on manufacturers beyond the requirements imposed by the federal government under the NLEA. In New York State Restaurant Association v. New York City Board of Health,[28] for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a New York City regulation requiring restaurants to include calorie content information on menus was expressly preempted by the NLEA.

To the extent that GMO-labeling laws are premised on the need to provide information related to nutrition or safety, it would appear that they would be preempted. To the extent that these laws are intended, however, to require disclosure of a manufacturing process or provide other consumer information, they would appear not to be preempted by the text of the NLEA. Determining whether a particular state GMO law is preempted may require a difficult assessment, and the issue may not be settled without litigation, the outcome of which is uncertain. This is an additional cost imposed on taxpayers and businesses.[29]

Certainly, Congress and the President together can change federal law and can decide to preempt more or less state law in this area. The question of preemption, in other words, is not a question of constitutional limits on federal power, since courts would likely hold that the sale of GMO products affects interstate commerce.[30] Here, there are several potentially good reasons why Congress might choose to pass a national GMO labeling law. For example:

  • If states are using GMO-labeling laws to protect in-state business against out-of-state competitors, such laws might run afoul of the so-called Dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.[31] Rather than relying on a court to reach this conclusion, Congress might choose to pass a federal law to prevent states from engaging in such apparent favoritism for local industries in the first place.
  • It might also be that state GMO-labeling laws would raise the costs of certain foods and constitute a regressive tax on the poorest citizens. In such a case, a federal labeling regime might make sense.
  • Congress could also justify preempting state GMO-labeling laws in order to protect manufacturers that would otherwise be harmed by unwarranted prejudice against GMO products.

Finally, should Congress take a broader view of First Amendment protection for commercial speech than is taken by the federal courts, it could pass preemptive legislation. Congress has a duty to interpret the Constitution and vindicate the constitutional rights of all citizens. Just because federal courts have taken a dim view of constitutional protections for commercial speech, it does not follow that Congress cannot pass greater protections, consistent with its own view of the First Amendment.


State GMO-labeling laws raise substantial questions under First Amendment jurisprudence. Although federal courts would likely not strike down such laws on that basis, this does not mean that Congress cannot preempt these laws to provide greater First Amendment protection than the floor set by the courts. In fact, such state labeling requirements might already be preempted by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act to the extent that these laws extend beyond federal labeling requirements relating to health effects.

As it stands, the U.S. Congress should exercise its own independent judgment about preempting or not preempting state GMO-labeling laws while remaining mindful of the effect of these laws on the national economy.

—Andrew Kloster is a Legal Fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Andrew Kloster Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Show references in this report

[1] 9 Vt. Stat. Ann. § 3043.

[2] Previously, voters in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado had rejected ballot measures requiring GMO labeling.

[3] Conn. Gen. Stat. § 21a-92c (2015) (this law will become effective after July 1, 2015, and once a critical mass of other Northeastern states have passed similar laws); Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 22, § 2593 (2014) (effective August 1, 2014).

[4] The law defines “genetic engineering” to include foods produced from organisms in which the genetic material has been changed through DNA manipulation or through fusion of cells or hybridization techniques “in a way that does not occur by natural multiplication or natural recombination.” This definition is likely both underinclusive and overinclusive and in all likelihood will lead to litigation. For example, the “grandchildren” of GMO crops might not be considered GMO crops under the definition, and certain traditional breeding techniques might be included or not, based on the definition of “natural.”

[5] See Grocery Mfrs. Ass’n v. Sorrell, No. 5:14-cv-00117-cr (D. Vt. Filed June 12, 2014); see also Grocery Mfrs. Ass’n v. Sorrell , No. 5:14-cv-00117-cr, 2015 WL 1931142 (D. Vt. Apr. 27, 2015) (disposing of some claims in a manner consistent with the analysis laid out in this paper).

[6] Daren Bakst, A Q & A on the Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods, Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4440, July 22, 2015, available at

[7] Molly Ball, Want to Know If Your Food Is Genetically Modified? he Atlantic, May 14, 2014, available at See also, e.g., United States Food and Drug Administration, Questions & Answers on Food From Genetically Engineered Plants, available at

[8] The leading case in this area is the case striking down a West Virginia law compelling students to say the Pledge of Allegiance. West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).

[9] See, e.g., David L. Hudson, Jr., Justice Clarence Thomas: The Emergence of a Commercial Speech Protector, 35 Creighton L. Rev. 485 (2002).

[10] Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Commission, 447 U.S. 557 (1980).

[11] 566.

[12] Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio, 471 U.S. 626 (1985).

[13] Id. at 651.

[14] American Meat Institute v. United States Dep’t of Agric., 760 F.3d 18, 26 (D.C. Cir. 2014). Perhaps limiting the precedential value of the case, the court went on to repeat the “unduly burdensome” language, but only when the restriction “operates as a restriction on constitutionally protected speech”: a circular argument if there ever was one.

[15] See, e.g., Discount Tobacco City & Lottery, Inc. v. U.S., 674 F.3d 509 (6th Cir. 2012).

[16] Bakst, supra note 6.

[17] See, e.g., Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the State of New York, 385 U.S. 589 (1967) (“Because First Amendment freedoms need breathing space to survive, government may regulate in the area only with narrow specificity.”).

[18] While ordinarily a freestanding First Amendment claim, a vagueness challenge bleeds into the compelled speech test under Zauderer because if a requirement demands disclosure of undefinable information, it is impossible to argue that information is either “purely factual” or “uncontroversial.”

[19] “[C]onsumer protection is a field traditionally subject to state regulation.” SPGGC v. Blumenthal, 505 F.3d 183, 194 (2nd Cir. 2007). However, it is true that state constitutions could limit the authority of state governments to regulate consumer protection.

[20] For a good discussion of the Commerce Clause, see The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, 130–37 (2nd Ed. 2014), available at!/articles/1/essays/38/commerce-among-the-states. It is true, however, that a number of federal labeling laws have not been subject to Commerce Clause challenge in litigation. Discussing such a challenge is beyond the scope of this paper.

[21] 21 U.S.C. § 331.

[22] 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a).

[23] 21 U.S.C. § 601.

[24] 21 U.S.C. § 451.

[25] 7 U.S.C. § 7701.

[26] 7 U.S.C. § 136.

[27] 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a)(5); see also 21 U.S.C. § 343(r)(1).

[28] 509 F.Supp.2d 351 (2nd Cir. 2007).

[29] An additional, democratic problem arises when state officials run campaigns and pass laws making reference to the potential harm to health or safety of GMOs but then justify the laws differently in litigation.

[30] See supra note 20.

[31] Because Congress has the authority to regulate interstate commerce, the Supreme Court has held that state laws that unduly burden interstate commerce are impliedly prohibited by the Commerce Clause. See, e.g., Andrew Kloster, California Shell Egg Regulations Run Afoul of the Commerce Clause, Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum No. 123, May 22, 2014, available at However, at least in the Vermont litigation, a federal court has already ruled against such a challenge in the GMO context: the portions of the Vermont law that restrict out-of-state advertising. It would likely take a more sophisticated economic analysis or evidence of discriminatory intent to challenge a labeling law on this basis.