AUGUSTA, Maine — People who want to require that all genetically modified food in Maine be labeled as such cheered a House vote Thursday on a bill that would let Maine voters decide the issue. But two major hurdles stand between the proposal and November’s ballot.
The 85-59 vote represents the latest phase of a multistep legislative process. This was the first time the bill had come up for a vote in House. But the food fight it seems has just begun.
The vote is almost purely party-line, with Democrats supporting the measure and Republicans opposing. That bodes ill for the GMO labeling bill as it moves to the Republican-controlled Senate or if it is vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, because the two-thirds support needed to override a veto is lacking.
Still, lawmakers are hopeful this will inch Maine forward on the GMO labeling issue.
“Mainers have a right to know what is in the food we feed our families,” said Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, the measure’s sponsor, in a prepared statement. “I feel it’s time to send this issue to the people of the state of Maine and let them decide.”
The bill, LD 991, would allow Mainers to decide at the polls whether food sold in the state that includes GMOs should be so labeled.
It also seeks to free Maine from a 2014 law that tied its genetically engineered food labeling initiatives to similar actions in four contiguous states — Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Dunphy wants to repeal the trigger and sunset clause, which would make labeling mandatory in Maine as soon as the law goes into effect.
Because New Hampshire has not enacted a GMO labeling mandate, Maine’s 2014 bill is in limbo because it would only be enacted if all four of the other states have the law on the books. New Hampshire lawmakers recently rejected a GMO labeling mandate there.
New England ice cream guru Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Vermont-based ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s, supports the measure.
“Just like labels that require disclosure of farm-raised salmon or orange juice from concentrate, labeling of GE [genetically engineered] food will provide consumers the information they need to make choices for themselves and their families,” Greenfield wrote in his testimony to the Maine Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee last year. He also said that Ben & Jerry’s changes its labels often and adhering to this law would not be problematic.
In a public hearing last year, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Deputy Director Heather Spalding and Organic Consumers Association Associate Director Katherine Paul testified in support of GMO labeling.
“For decades, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has been leading the fight in Maine for good food, good farming and demanding transparency in labeling food made from GMO crops,” said Spalding, according to a release.
Opponents, including Republican lawmakers who spoke against Dunphy’s bill during floor debate in the House, say that the 2014 compromise measure should be given more time to work. They also argue that requiring GMO labeling would create unfair burdens for business and that it could deprive Maine consumers of some food products currently available to them because national manufacturers might cease shipping to Maine if they have to add special labeling not required elsewhere.
The bill goes next to the Senate and faces future votes in both the House and Senate. If it passes both chambers and survives a likely veto, the question will be sent to referendum for Mainers to decide at the polls this fall.
A majority of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee proposed amending the bill to eliminate the referendum component and instead extend the trigger clause, which is set to expire in 2018, to the year 2022.
That would buy Maine four more years to see if New Hampshire enacts a GMO labeling bill. However, Democrats speaking in favor of LD 991 expressed frustration that GMO labeling in Maine is essentially held hostage by New Hampshire and argued that LD 991 is needed now to rectify that situation.