For advocates of GMO food labels, battle is in states, and wins elusive

03/12/2014 1:48 PM

10/22/2014 2:05 PM

In this small state with a very big legislature, the top official at the association for grocery stores knew he had a lot of people to convince about an important food-labeling bill. But he also had a lot of members on his side.

“This is a citizen legislature – it takes a lot of time,” said John Dumais, president and chief executive of the New Hampshire Grocers Association, who opposed the bill early this year. “It certainly is difficult to reach everybody.”

New Hampshire has a whopping 400 lawmakers in its state House of Representatives – more than any other in the country. But it also has about 800 members in its grocers’ association, which comprises everything from convenience stores to independent and chain groceries. So when it came to the bill on what is known as “GMO labeling,” Dumais had a ready-built source of supporters.

The issue of labeling foods that contain genetically modified ingredients has taken hold in states around the country, and more than 20 have seen ballot measures or legislative initiatives in the past two years.

Advocates for labeling say they would prefer that the federal Food and Drug Administration take the lead, requiring that companies put labels on food packages that give consumers a heads-up that ingredients inside are made with genetically modified organisms. Those might include substances such as corn, which is widely used in processed foods and more often than not has been genetically modified to help counter pests and boost yields.

The FDA hasn’t agreed to do so. It says that foods from genetically engineered plants must only meet the same safety requirements as foods from traditionally bred plants.

And while the agency says on its website that “we recognize and appreciate the strong interest that many consumers have in knowing whether a food was produced using genetic engineering,” it supports only voluntary labeling.

That has shifted the battle to the states, where advocates of labeling are hopeful they can accomplish in legislatures and voting booths what hasn’t been accomplished in Washington.

So far, they’ve met limited success. And even that may be evaporating in places such as New Hampshire.

Because states in New England are so small, they started to put through bills with what are known as trigger mechanisms, requiring nearby states to pass similar legislation. The small states can’t go it alone, the thinking goes, since food manufacturers won’t bother to create labels for little Vermont that are different than they are in little New Hampshire.

Maine, for example, recently passed a GMO labeling bill that said “any food offered for retail sale that is genetically engineered must be accompanied by a conspicuous disclosure that states ‘Produced with Genetic Engineering.’ ” In the case of unpackaged foods, the disclosure must be on a card or label on the store shelf or bin in which the food is displayed.

But the trigger might negate the law, which would go into effect only “when legislation requiring mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food has been adopted by at least five contiguous states including Maine.” Since Maine shares a border only with New Hampshire, that makes what happens in the Granite State vital.

New Hampshire state Rep. Bob Haefner, a Republican from Hudson, took up for grocers in seeking to defeat the bill, which he called “a misplaced attempt to do at a state level what must be done at a national level.” The label could serve “as a skull and crossbones, suggesting to the consumer that there is something dangerous in the product when in fact science has shown there is not.”

“How is the owner of your corner grocery going to guarantee that every item on his store shelves is labeled correctly?” he asked in pushing for the bill’s defeat.

Added Dumais of the grocers’ association: “Our opposition is not to labeling itself. We’re opposed to labeling for a small segment of the states.”

New Hampshire is particularly vulnerable to the small-state risk, he said, because it doesn’t have a sales tax and draws 40 percent of its retail customers from out of state.

“We have no problem if Congress is going to do it,” Dumais said. “It does not make sense on a piecemeal basis.” (The national Grocery Manufacturers Association, meanwhile, opposes mandatory labeling on a national basis, saying such labels are inherently misleading to consumers.)

On the other side was a collection of consumer groups, organic farmers and others who pitched the bill in January as a right-to-know issue.

Alex Simpson, a community organizer who helped lead the bill’s proponents, said they attempted to match the money and organization of the anti-labeling side, which had help from farm groups, agribusiness and biotechnology corporations.

“We tried to use grass-roots power to overcome the opposition's financial advantage,” Simpson said. “We never thought we would be able to match them financially. We hoped that citizens' voices would counter the opposition's money successfully. Many of our legislators heard from more citizens on this issue than any other, but it wasn't enough to eke out a win.”

But the vote in the state House was close. The bill lost 185-162. And while it’s not totally dead on the Senate side, officials said it was unlikely to be revived this year, though it can come up again next year.

“Oh, I bet it will,” said Haefner, the state House member who pushed to defeat it. “I am willing to bet somebody will bring that exact same bill back next year.”

Such battles will play out in states across the country.

The Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based environmental advocacy organization, tracks the legislation as well as polling on the issue, and it says that Americans overwhelmingly support labeling efforts. The most recent poll cited by the group: a 2013 New York Times survey showing that 93 percent of respondents say food with such ingredients should be identified.

Rebecca Spector, who helps coordinate the issue for the Center for Food Safety, said that so far in 2014, 29 bills dealing with GMO labeling had been introduced in 15 states. There are now 61 different bills active in 23 different states.

“We’re seeing a groundswell of interest at the state level,” she said. “Constituents are talking with legislators. It’s coming from the ground up.”

Both sides of the issue claim to feel outgunned: the pro-labeling advocates by the money and resources of the agriculture, grocery and biotechnology industries, and the anti-labeling forces by social media.

Cathy Enright, an official with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said that over the past eight years, pro-labeling advocates had smartly used social media, raising questions about the safety of genetically modified foods.

“And we weren’t there – we didn’t answer them,” she said.

Now, they are: The group that represents big agriculture firms such as Monsanto has its own presence online, keeping the battle engaged nationwide and in the states.

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