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GMO Labeling Requirement Could Go to Maine Voters

Voters could get a chance to weigh in on whether foods produced from genetically modified organisms should be labeled for consumers.

In a mostly party-line vote, the Maine House Thursday approved a bill that would allow voters to decide whether to repeal one of the provisions of Maine’s current GMO labeling law - the requirement that it doesn’t take effect until neighboring states also approve it.

Three years ago, Maine lawmakers passed a compromise bill requiring GMO labeling, on the condition that five contiguous states approve similar legislation by 2018. That means Maine cannot have a GMO labeling law unless, at a minimum, New Hampshire approves a similar measure. And New Hampshire lawmakers killed their GMO labeling bill off last month.

Rep. Michelle Dunphy, an Old Town Democrat, says consumers want to know whether the foods they buy contain GMOs and that if lawmakers can’t accomplish that goal, they should let the voters decide.

“Let them have their final say,” Dunphy says. “Mainers deserve the right to know what their eating and feeding their families.”

Opponents say Dunphy’s ballot-box approach to GMO labeling is flawed. They point out that large food producers are not required to sell their products in a small state like Maine, and they say that’s why Maine needs the support of the other New England states.

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says voter approval of a GMO labeling law would prompt many food distributors to simply bypass Maine.

“We’re asking for manufacturers who are printing labels nationwide to have some sort of special label just for Maine, and I don’t want to put Maine at a competitive disadvantage,” Fredette says. “You will see more GMO labeling over time. I think you’re even seeing it at the markets today. But what my concern is that by passing this particular bill, we’re going to put Maine in a bad position.”

Eight of the 13 members on Dunphy’s Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Committee say Dunphy’s proposal runs contrary to affirmative positions taken by Maine, Vermont and Connecticut in response to food producers who want a national response to the labeling issue.

Rep. Russell Black, a Wilton Republican on Dunphy’s panel, says her proposal would encourage a patchwork of individual state regulations. He asked his seatmates to defeat the measure so that they could go on to approve the committee’s majority report.

“The majority report would keep Maine’s GMO labeling law intact now and move out the repeal date from 2018 to 2022,” Black says. “We sincerely believe that this is a reasonable compromise.”

But considering whether public policy should hinge upon the priorities of agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporations or the national food industry over the concerns of the average Maine voter doesn’t make sense to Rep. Dillon Bates, a Westbook Democrat. He cited recent polls that suggest 97 percent of all Americans strongly favor GMO labeling, and he questioned where the 3 percent come from who oppose the requirement.

“The answer, unfortunately, is from large agribusiness in the Midwest and their allies — Monsanto comes to mind — but these are the same reasons we have ethanol in our gasoline,” Bates says. “The nexus of this industry and refusal to label foods containing GMOs begins and ends right in the area of the Iowa caucus. They all claim that everything is fine and that there’s nothing to hide. If there is truly nothing to hide, then what is the opposition?”

The tribal representative for the Houlton Band of Maliseets, Rep. Henry Bear of Houlton, says a deep divide in the House should send a message to lawmakers as to how they should vote.

“Unless the GMO food was only being eaten in this body, then we should send the question out to all the people who will be subject to the same food risk,” Bear says.

The vote, mostly along party lines, was 85-59 to send the GMO labeling bill to the voters for a decision.

It now moves to the Senate where the Republican majority is likely to be more critical of the measure.

Copyright 2016 Maine Public

A.J. came to Maine Public Radio in August 2007 after a stint as a staff writer for Blethen Maine Newspapers. His news coverage for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta also appeared in the Waterville Morning Sentinel, the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram. Prior to joining the Kennebec Journal, A.J. served for 13 years as political editor and State House bureau chief for the Bangor Daily News.
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