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Genetically Modified Food: Maine Lawmakers Consider Labeling Requirement
03/12/2013   Reported By: Keith Shortall

Genetically modified foods sold in Maine would have to be labeled as such under a bill that's before lawmakers in Augusta. Supporters, including the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardener's Association, say consumers have a right to know what they're buying. But opponents say there's no need to warn consumers about products that are perfectly safe. Keith Shortall reports.

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The bill would require genetically modified foods - and products that contain genetically modified organisms, such as modified corn, soy, and canola - to bear labels, either on the product or on the shelf on which the item is displayed.

"All this bill would do would require there to be a label at the point of sale to the consumer, so that the consumer can make an educated choice," says Logan Perkins, the coordinator of MOFGA's "Right to Know GMO" campaign. She says polls have shown that consumers want to know more about what's in the food they buy.

"Some people have food allergies and have concerns that this might be contributing to their food allergies," she says. "Some people have health concerns, and some people like to allocate their grocery dollars to support local and sustainable forms of agriculture. But people also have religious reasons. Everyone's reason is going to be different, but that's exactly the point - that everyone has a right to know so that they can make an informed choice."

Opponents of the bill say there's no reason to warn consumers about incredients that can't hurt them. "Nobody's even gotten the hiccups unless they ate too many potato chips," says lobbyist Bob Tardy of Newport, who represents the Biotechnology Industry Organization, including Monsanto and other companies that produce genetically modified seeds for crops that are widely used in foods.

Tardy, who also served in the Legislature and co- chaired the Agriculture Committee for eight years, says similar bills have been rejected over the past two decades. He says lawmakers did approve a voluntary labeling bill, that allows GMO-free food products to be labeled as such.

"And those that want to avoid GMO's can always buy 'organic' because organic production precludes the use of genetically modified seed," Tardy says.

The bill's sponsor, Republican state Rep. Lance Harvell of Farmington, says the international debate over the long-term health effects of genetically modified organisms has by no means been settled, and he has more than 120 co-sponsors, including Democrats, Republicans and independents.

"I'm not asking you to say, 'Don't grow genetically engineered seed,'" Harvell says. "I'm not telling you they're bad, I'm not telling you they're good. I'm telling you that the people have a right to know they're there. That's it."

Even if the bill were to pass and be signed into law, Harvell says it wouldn't take effect until five states, or a combination of states with a total population of 20 million people, pass similar labeling laws. He says that's meant to address concerns that food manufacturers might simply pull their products from Maine's relatively small market, rather than comply with the state's labeling requirement.

The Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is expected to schedule a public hearing on the bill in the next few weeks.


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