By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Large food manufacturers and industry representatives are fighting a renewed push to force them to disclose genetically modified ingredients in food products as Massachusetts lawmakers weigh legislation that would require so-called GMO labels.
Maine and Connecticut have enacted labeling laws for engineered foods, but laws in those states won't go into effect until other states in the region do the same. Vermont lawmakers are poised to pass similar GMO labeling legislation.
As laws pass in other New England states, Massachusetts lawmakers are being pushed from both sides as proponents of labeling genetically engineered food make a pitch to require labels and the food industry argues it is an unnecessary move that only the federal government can dictate.
Rep. Ellen Story, who has filed legislation to require labels several times during the past few years, said Tuesday that "there is more interest this time than there ever has been."
Story filed two bills this legislative session - one that would require GMO labels on all foods with genetically engineered ingredients (H 2093) and another that would require labeling of seeds (H 813). Rep. Todd Smola, a Republican from Palmer, is also pushing for GMO labels (H 808). Story's bill is being considered by the Public Health Committee, chaired by Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Jamaica Plain) and Smola's bill is before the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee.
Genetically engineered seeds were first introduced in the early 1990s for numerous reasons, including the ability to resist insects or herbicides. While there is little science around the safety of engineered seeds, the Food and Drug Administration has not found them to be unsafe so far, both sides of the issue agree.
Scientists fall in both camps, with some dismissing concerns over GMOs and other saying they are too new to know biological effects, according to proponents and opponents of labeling.
"My bill does not take a stand on whether they are good or bad. It just says we should know, so if we are concerned about giving genetically modified organisms to our children and grandchildren we should have the right to know," Story said.
Pat Fiero, a former state representative from Gloucester, is among those fighting for labels on genetically engineered foods. Fiero, who in 2005 moved to Leverett in the western part of the state, said she has increasingly become concerned about what goes into the food Americans consume. Fiero said scientists cannot say with certainty that genetically engineered foods do not cause health problems.
"The more I read about GMOs, the more concerned I became," Fiero said Tuesday after lobbying lawmakers at the State House.
Fiero is part of a coalition of organizations, including MassPIRG, Right to Know GMO Massachusetts and the Northeast Organic Farming Association. As part of their lobbying Tuesday, the group passed out a mock box of candy to illustrate the proposed GMO label, which they say would not be a warning, but notification that genetically engineered ingredients were used in the product.
"All we want is one line of text, information so consumers have a right to know what they are feeding their families," said Martin Dagoberto, a spokesman for MA Right to Know GMOs.
Story, an Amherst Democrat, said she was recently lobbied on the bill by a man from Michigan who worked for a baby formula manufacturer. The interest from out of state, she said, underscored the fight being waged by manufacturers to stop states from passing laws.
Story told the food industry rep that mothers should know if they are feeding their infants food with genetically modified organisms. He agreed with her, she said, but argued the federal government needs to make the decision, not the states.
"Ideally, it would be done on a federal level. Has anybody seen the FDA spring into action on anything lately? They are paralyzed," Story said.
So the states are taking the lead, she said.
Food companies trying to head off state efforts to enact mandatory labels have recently proposed new voluntary labels nationwide. The National Restaurant Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association are fighting labeling efforts at the state level, but have shown support for voluntary labels.
The Massachusetts Retailers Association is part of a coalition that opposes labeling GMO foods, arguing it is unnecessary because consumers can choose to buy certified organic foods if they have concerns.
William Rennie, vice president at the Retailers Association, said some proponents describe labels as a right to know issue. "You've already got organic products in the marketplace now. So consumers who prefer to purchase food products that don't contain GMOs, they can choose to purchase foods that are certified organic," he said.
Food manufacturers would have a tough time creating special GMO identifying labels for products sold in Massachusetts, Rennie said, adding the FDA and the USDA are in charge of food labeling. "That is where the conversation should be had," he said.