Lawmakers coalescing behind push to label genetically modified foods

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STATE HOUSE — Now supported by more than three-quarters of state lawmakers, legislation that would require all genetically engineered food to be labeled won praised from proponents Tuesday as a consumer protection that would help people make informed choices about what to eat.

The Genetic Engineering Transparency Food and Seed Labeling Act, filed by Reps. Ellen Story and Todd Smola, calls for food that has been genetically modified to be labeled as such if it is sold in Massachusetts.

“I want informed consumers,” Richard Robinson, a Sherborn organic farmer said during a hearing of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. “I want my consumers to know where their food is from, whether they’re buying it from me, whether they’re buying it from Whole Foods or whether they’re buying it from Market Basket. I think they have the right to know.”

The bill has been put forth repeatedly in the past and was reported out favorably by the environment committee during the last legislative session. When it was last filed in 2013, a total of eight legislators had signed on as cosponsors. This year, 154 lawmakers are backing the bill.

The states of Vermont, Maine and Connecticut have all passed their own laws requiring the labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients. Opponents worry labels could send the wrong message to consumers about the safety of genetically modified products despite a lack of clear science on the issue.

Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts professor and board chairman of the Council for Responsible Genetics, said he believes biotechnology can be valuable but that his research has found no consensus among scientists on whether it is safe to add a foreign gene to a food product. Different tests yielded different results, he said.

“If you were building an airplane, a Boeing, let’s just say, and you ran 95 safe tests, and on five tests the fuselage broke and the power supply went off, you wouldn’t just leave those five tests alone and say you have a safe plane,” Krimsky said.

Speaking against the bill, Ritchard Engelhardt of the Biotechnology Industry Organization said the national trade group he represents would support voluntary labeling, but requiring the label would “falsely imply differences where none exist” between conventional and genetically engineered products.

Engelhardt and Grocery Manufacturers Association Director of State Affairs Greg Costa both cautioned that a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) label could confuse consumers and be construed as a warning that the food was unsafe. The industry representatives said that a distrust of GMOs could hurt businesses that produce them, with Engelhardt pointing to the 77,817 people employed in biotechnology in Massachusetts.

“We strongly urge the Legislature to consider the damage done to one of Massachusetts’ largest industries when the very science that underpins that industry is called into question,” Engelhardt said.

Costa said he supported the idea of informing consumers about what their food contains, but said that “there isn’t always anything to know” when it comes to genetically engineered ingredients. Often, he said, any genetic material introduced is removed during the processing of the food.

“There’s no real knowledge that is imparted here,” he said. “I understand that it’s a matter of curiosity, just like I might be curious if a food is harvested by hand.”

Opponents to the labeling bill were outnumbered by the dozens testifying in favor of it, many of whom wore bright green “LABEL GMOs” stickers.

After Engelhardt and Costa spoke, committee members said they were devoting more time to questioning the pair than they otherwise might, noting that few others were likely to testify against the bill.

“It’s just proof that labeling is working out here,” Rep. Brian Mannal joked, referencing the stickers.

Mannal, a Barnstable Democrat, later faced his fellow committee members to deliver his own testimony, telling them how he lost 35 pounds and felt his health improve after switching to an organic, non-GMO diet.

He said most genetically modified foods were developed not to increase nutritional value, but to yield more crops and increase profits for the companies producing them.

“The fact is, you don’t inject pig DNA into an orange because it’s nutritious,” Mannal said. “You do that because you’re getting something out of the product besides what nature intended.”

Other legislators said constituents have been urging them to support the bill. Rep. Cory Atkins said 375 residents of her district had written to her arguing for “their right to know what’s in their food,” and Rep. Denise Provost said GMO labeling was “one of the biggest issues” she hears about from her constituents.

Jean Halloran, the food policy initiatives director at Consumers Union, referred to a poll conducted by her group that found 92 percent of consumers want food labels to indicate genetic modification.

“Voluntary labeling is not sufficient,” she said. “Organic food is great, but it’s only 5 percent of the food supply, and it is more expensive.”

More than 30 people were still set to testify by the time the hearing approached its fourth hour Tuesday afternoon.

Before the hearing, as people ate their lunch next to a fountain, dozens of others pushing for GMO labeling gathered nearby on a patch of Boston Common grass, claiming that the lack of regulation and scientific inquiry into the technology should be cause for concern.

“Farmers were among the first to discover this technology and became concerned about it,” said Jack Kittredge, of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

Rep. Todd Smola, the ranking Republican on House Ways and Means, and Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat, both told the News Service they are not sure whether there are actual health effects caused by consuming GMO food but they believe it should be labeled.

Asked if there are any lawmakers who do believe that GMOs are dangerous, Smola said, “Not that I know yet.”

The GMO-labeling bill has 29 supporters in the 40-member Senate and 125 supporters in the 160-person House, according to the bill’s backers.

Story, an Amherst Democrat and member of House leadership, said, “I’ve been filing this thing for 10 years,” and said, “This is the year for it to pass.”

Chipotle, a popular burrito chain, claims it was the first “national restaurant company” to disclose its GMO ingredients and was later the first to remove all GMO products from its restaurants. Other companies market their products as GMO-free, but Smola said consumers should have that information about every food product.

“You can do that, but at the end of the day the whole intent of what this bill is all about is the fact that we want that information to be on every product,” Smola told the News Service.

“If people want to know what’s in their food we should be able to have labels on the food,” Rushing told the News Service. Asked if he believes there is any health effect from eating GMO ingredients, Rushing said, “I don’t know the answer to that.”

— Written by Kate Lannan and Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service