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.
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.
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.
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