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Maine Panel Endorses Labeling for Genetically Modified Food
05/14/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee has advanced a bill that would require labeling of genetically modified food, despite a warning from Maine's Attorney General that the measure may be unconstitutional and vulnerable to serious legal challenges. In a work session appearance before the committee, AG Janet Mills recommended that lawmakers not pass the bill. But supporters say GMO lableing has widespread support in Augusta and across the state, and they argue the full Legislature should approve the bill. Jay Field reports.

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Sixty-four nations currently label genetically modified food, but the U.S. is not among them. A recent poll shows that more than 90 percent of people in Maine support GMO labeling. One person who backs the concept is none other than Attorney General Janet Mills.

"I raised five daughters and I have three grandsons and they're all very careful about what they eat, what they drink, and I'd like them to know what's in the cans and jars and bottles on the grocery shelves as well," she said.

Mills told the committee, "I know that many of you want to pass a law that takes on the corporate giants and stands up to the mega-food industry...and I share that cause and that concern.

"But I can assure you that when this matter goes to court, as it surely will if you pass the bill in any form, a judge will not stop to take a public opinion poll to determine if the First Amendment is violated," Mill said. "A judge will not take a poll to determine whether a law violates the Commerce Clause. And a judge will not take a poll before figuring out whether Congress has prempted the area covered by this law."

Opponents say forcing retailers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients would violate food producers First Amendment rights. They also say that forcing lables onto certain products, like, say, potatoes, would put some Maine growers at a disadvantege compared to competitors in other states. Passing the bill, Mills argued, would leave Maine open to legal challenges on these fronts.

The committee listened, then went ahead and voted out the GMO labeling bill anyway, endorsing it by an 8 to 4 margin.

"I would say that this is historic legislation," says Jim Gerritsen, who runs Wood Prairie Farm in Aroostook County. Gerritson has pushed for GMO labeling for years. Gerritsen and other supporters argue the attorney general's judgement that the bill, as written, may be vulnerable a constitutional challenge is flawed reasoning.

"This LD 718 is a GMO labeling bill. And it makes no judgement as to whether GMOs are good or bad," he said. "But it does make the judgement that there is sufficent uncertainty out there that consumers do have the right to know. And that's why I think everyone is lining up behind this bill."

Opponents of the legislation, though, had harsh words for the committee.

"I mean, it's troubling," says Lance Dutson, spokesperson for the biotech and other business interests opposing LD 718.

"The Attorney General and the committee are working on trying to make sure that the bills that come to the floor are not frivilous, and that they're not going to just waste everybody's time. And when the attorney general of the state of Maine says clearly that there are serious constitutional questions that the bill raises - it really kind of defies logic that the committee would go down this road."

It's now up to the full Legislature to decide if it wants to keep moving forward, against the advice of Maine's top legal advisor.


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