July 9, 2013

LePage may OK bill requiring labels for genetically modified foods

The bill received unanimous votes in the Maine Senate and House, but if approved, could draw a lawsuit from agribusiness giant Monsanto.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA – Advocates for a bill that would require food producers to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients believe they have won a key ally: Gov. Paul LePage.

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Logan Perkins, Right to Know-GMO Campaign Coordinator for Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, speaks at a rally outside the Maine State House on Tuesday April 23, 2013. Advocates of a bill that would require food producers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients believe they’ve won a key ally: Gov. Paul LePage.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Products labeled with Non Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) are sold at the Lassens Natural Foods & Vitamins store in Los Feliz district of Los Angeles Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Maine advocates of a bill that would require food producers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients believe they’ve won a key ally: Gov. Paul LePage.


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The governor hasn't confirmed that he will sign L.D. 718, a bill inspired by a national movement that has pitted the food production and agribusiness industry against well-organized and energized activists. But the bill is positioned in a way that would let LePage sign it early next year and give Maine time to plan its response to a potential lawsuit by Monsanto. The company has threatened to sue states that pass food labeling laws.

"If this allows us to get our ducks in a row and ease some of the fears of (Attorney General Janet Mills), I'm OK with it," said Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, the sponsor of L.D. 718. He was referring to Mills' comments to lawmakers in May that the bill is almost certain to face a legal challenge.

The delay could also buy time for other states to adopt labeling laws, which supporters hope will prompt the federal government to draft a national standard for foods that are bioengineered -- their DNA spliced with that of unrelated plants, animals, bacteria or viruses.

The government's reluctance to draft a national food labeling law has been the impetus for the 50-state strategy by activist groups. So far, L.D. 718 has counterparts in 30 states.

Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, a national advocacy group, said Monday that states aren't waiting for the federal Food and Drug Administration to act on the labeling requirement, but are "ultimately hoping that it will."

Faber, who from 2007 to 2012 was a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, one of the trade organizations fighting the labeling effort, said a "firestorm" of action in state legislatures has caught the industry off-guard.

It now must decide whether to keep fighting in each state by spending money on lobbying and lawsuits, or work with consumer activists and the federal government to adopt labeling standards.

"It's very costly, in both dollars and brand reputation, to continue to fight these fights," said Faber. "It's just bad business for food companies to continue to fight in 50 states when they could ultimately work with the FDA and consumer advocates for a federal solution."

There is speculation that the industry is preparing a federal approach. Last week The Hill, a Washington, D.C.-based publication, obtained a letter showing that food industry giants had scheduled a summit that could signify a new approach in the battle over genetically modified foods.

Faber said he was unaware of the meeting, but it makes sense for the industry to consider ending a multistate fight.

"Consumers in Massachusetts will demand the right to know what's in their food as much as consumers in Maine or Maryland," he said.

The industry says labeling misleads consumers into believing that bioengineered ingredients are less safe or less healthy than other foods. It has cited a statement by the American Medical Association last year that found no evidence that bioengineered foods are more dangerous than other foods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 70 percent of the processed food in American supermarkets has genetically modified ingredients.

Faber said labeling such products probably wouldn't change consumer behavior, but "fighting labeling is certainly undermining the trust that many consumers have in these big brands. . . . It creates the sense that big-brand companies have something to hide."

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