June 13, 2013

GMO labeling bill clears legislative hurdle, but industry fight foreseen

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Maine is on track to join several other states attempting to require food producers to label food containing genetically modified ingredients, following a landslide vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

click image to enlarge

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, introduces L.D. 718, An Act to Protect Maine Food Consumers' Right to Know About Genetically Engineered Food and Seed Stock, in a crowded hearing room before the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry on April 23.

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

The House voted to support L.D. 718, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, sets the stage for a legal entanglement between the state and agribusiness and biotech industry giant Monsanto, which already has threatened to sue states that pass similar labeling laws. The political battle between industry interests and the well-organized supporters of L.D. 718 has raged behind the scenes for several months at the State House, as the biotech industry fights to blunt a popular movement that has taken the GMO fight to at least 18 other legislatures following failed attempts to pass labeling legislation in Congress.

The House voted 141–4 in favor of an amendment that would trigger the labeling requirement once five contiguous states, including Maine, pass similar labeling legislation. Supporters of L.D. 718, a bill co-sponsored by 120 lawmakers, including Democrats, independents and Republicans, relished the looming fight with Monsanto, the litigious international company widely vilified by supporters of the organic food movement. Harvell blasted the company, saying lawmakers should not give the industry "veto power" over a bill that tells people what's in their food.

"In this body alone we have routinely taken on the federal government, which is supposedly the most powerful government in the world," Harvell said. "And yet, if a corporation threatens us, we fear them more? Are we going to give these people veto power over this body and the people of the state of Maine? Do we really live in a world where they have more power than our federal government? It's a question that we should ask."

A lawsuit probably will await Maine if the labeling bill becomes law.

Attorney General Janet Mills, who was asked to review the bill's constitutionality, told lawmakers on the Agriculture Committee that it is "almost certain" to face a legal challenge from the industry. Mills did not guarantee that her office would be able to defend its constitutionality. Proponents of the bill, including the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, said it is up to states to take on industry to ensure that it discloses whether food is bio-engineered — its DNA has been spliced with that of an unrelated plant, animal, bacterium or virus — because Congress has failed to enact federal legislation.

No state has passed such a labeling law. At least 18 states are considering them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut recently passed a GMO labeling law that is nearly identical to amended version of L.D. 718. Vermont is on the verge of doing the same. A similar bill is under consideration by the New Hampshire Legislature.

Lance Dutson, a spokesman for the business and industry coalition that's opposing the bill, told the Portland Press Herald in May that Mills' review of the bill essentially reaffirmed the proposal has "serious constitutional concerns."

The constitutional issue centers on free speech, specifically compelling food manufacturers and retailers to disclose ingredients that don't pose a known public health risk. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Farm Bureau and the Grocery Manufacturers Association say the bill would stigmatize genetically modified foods despite a dearth of scientific research proving that such products are any less healthful than those that are grown conventionally.

Maine law now allows retailers to label products voluntarily as certified organic or "GMO-free."

Harvell's bill would prohibit retailers from labeling a product "natural" if it contained GMOs, genetically modified organisms.

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