Friday, June 14, 2013

Maine House Gives First Nod to GMO Labeling Bill in Landslide Vote

By Steve Mistler     Portland Press Herald, June 11, 2013

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. 

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 has already 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 state legislatures following failed attempts to pass labeling legislation in Congress.

The House voted 141-4 in favor of a amendment that would trigger the labeling requirement once four other 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 likely may await Maine if the labeling bill goes into effect.
Attorney General Janet Mills, who was asked to review the constitutionality of the bill, 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.

Advocates of new regulations say scientific evidence is emerging that genetically modified foods can increase health risks and food allergies. They say federal regulators have left testing up to the industry that is producing and profiting from genetically modified products.

Labeling supporters argue that independent testing on GMO foods hasn't happened because industry patents prohibit it.

"If it's so unique that it requires a patent, then I say that it's time that it requires a label," Harvell said.

Harvell, during a rousing floor speech, said Tuesday that if GMO foods are so unique that they require a patent, the public can't be sure that it's safe to eat.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates genetically modified foods but does not approve them. The agency assumes the foods are safe until confronted with evidence that they're not. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, has worked on labeling legislation in Congress. He told lawmakers during a public hearing on Maine's bill that federal regulators have ceded review of genetically modified products to ensure that the industry — not the government — is legally liable if health problems surface.

Opponents say a labeling law would be costly to farmers and sellers, who would have to review affidavits to determine whether the food they're selling contains genetically modified ingredients.

The Legislature previously has rejected four GMO-labeling bills, but supporters say there is growing support for a law.

The proposal endorsed by the House differs from the original bill. It would not take effect until five other contiguous states pass similar legislation.

Some lawmakers worried that the amended version would doom the labeling effort because one state could derail the effort if it doesn't pass labeling legislation. Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, said the altered bill effectively would grant New Hampshire veto power over Maine's effort if Granite State lawmakers don't pass a labeling law.

Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough said the amended bill would help defray some of the anticipated legal costs and "send a message to the federal government."

The bill now moves to the Senate for a vote. The bill may face a steeper climb among Republican state senators. Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, on Monday described the bill as a Democrat-led effort on a conservative website.

The LePage administration testified against the bill during the public hearing. Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the governor had not yet taken a position on the amended bill.

In May the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that would give states the power to require genetically modified food to be labeled as such. U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, voted for the amendment. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted against it.

Steve Mistler — 620-7016

For related articles and more information, please visit Organic Consumers Association - OCA's  Genetic Engineering page, Millions Against Monsanto page and Politics and Democracy page.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Connecticut First In The Nation To Pass GMO Labeling Bill

by Jacqueline Wattles | Jun 3, 2013 6:32pm

 Tara Cook-Littman, an advocate who pushed for the bill celebrates her victory

A bill that would mandate labels on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients passed the House Monday, making Connecticut the first state in the nation to pass this type of legislation.

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are crops that have been manually altered using modern technology in order to be resistant to herbicides and pesticides or take on other characteristics such as a longer shelf-life. Connecticut’s legislation came in response to a national campaign to mandate labels on foods that contain GMOs.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy joined activists and House and Senate leadership to celebrate the bill’s passage, assuring them that the bill’s last step before enactment - his signature - would not be an issue.

“This is important stuff. . . and I think the rest of the world is starting to understand that,” Malloy said. “I know a lot of you are surprised. I’m not. I saw it coming. It’s an appropriate thing to do.”

Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said the bill would make a “critical difference.”

“We have made history in the state of Connecticut, and this issue is so important in terms of the safety of our food supply and the health of the men, women, and children in this country,” Williams said. “We know these GMO foods are tied directly to increased use of herbicides and pesticides that are wreaking havoc in our environment.”

The bill’s passage came after a different version of the bill was shuffled between the House and Senate for weeks before leadership in both chambers came to a compromise.

The issue was whether to allow the law to go into effect automatically, or tack on a “trigger” that would require neighboring states to pass similar legislation before Connecticut’s law would become effective. The idea behind the trigger, as House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said, is to ensure that Connecticut won’t “stand alone” with the bill and cause undesirable economic consequences.

But the House and Senate resolved their differences last week when compromise legislation was passed by the Senate. The new version requires that four other states pass similar legislation in order to “trigger” Connecticut’s labeling requirement. One of the states must share a border with Connecticut and their combined population must equal at least 20 million people.

If the trigger is met, sellers or distributors who sell products containing GMOs that are not labeled would be subject to a daily $1,000 fine per product and the Department of Consumer Protection would be able to embargo the products.

Sharkey said he was pleased with the compromise.

“We were able to come together and compromise to protect consumers and the economy in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “I think it’s a tremendous achievement.”

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said the reason the bill came back after hitting so many legislative roadblocks was because of the grassroots activism that was louder than ever this session.

“Everyone was committed to making sure we got something passed,” he said. “Sitting down, doing the hard work, listening to the advocates, and getting the bill passed…[the advocates] are the reason.”

The bill received bipartisan support, passing the Senate unanimously and winning a 134-3 vote in the House.
Though the compromise weakens the Senate’s original bill, which would have gone into effect in 2016 regardless of whether other states were on board, the advocates that pressed the legislators for action said they support it.

Tara Cook-Littman, the face of the Right to Know GMO campaign in Connecticut, has spent the past two years lobbying for GMO-labeling legislation. She said was “thrilled” about the legislation and is not concerned about the trigger clause.

“This is a very strong bill . . . it represents the highest standard developed by GMO-labeling leaders throughout the country,” Cook-Litmann said. “To all those concerned about the trigger clause, we have nothing to fear.”

Rep. Diana Urban, one of the bill’s main proponents, said Maine, New Jersey, and New York are “well on their way to passing similar legislation.”

“This is history,” Urban said. “It’s a doable trigger, and I am just thrilled. Sixty-two other countries either ban [GMOs] or label them, and we’re the first in the nation to stand up and do this.”

Sharkey added that passing this bill is instrumental in getting other states to follow suit.

“The hardest thing that we can ever do is get that very first state to say to the country that this is the way we as a people want to see our country go, and Connecticut is going to lead the way,” he said.

Activists that lead GMO-labeling advocacy groups in Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all traveled to Hartford to celebrate with the Connecticut advocates.  and said they are hopeful Connecticut’s bill will help push proposed legislation in their own states through.

Jim Garrison, a potato farmer and a member of Maine’s Right to Know GMO coalition, said the Maine House of Representatives may vote on a GMO-labeling bill as early as Friday and the bill has 123 co-sponsors.

Martin Dagoberto, a member of the Massachusetts Right to Know GMO coalition, said he felt Connecticut’s action would pressure other states to follow suit.

“This win for Connecticut is a win for all of us,” Dagoberto said. “It feeds our collective momentum, and we will not be stopped. The trigger clause is nothing more than a way to encourage other states to share the burden of defending the integrity of our democracy and our food supply because powerful corporate interests want to keep us in the dark.”

GMO-labeling legislation has also been proposed in the lower house of the New York State Legislature, a state Urban said is instrumental in getting on board because of its big economy, but no votes have been taken yet.

CT First In The Nation To Pass GMO Labeling Bill