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U.S. states consider labelling changes

Supporters say people should know if foods are genetically modified

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- In the absence of federal regulation, states from Rhode Island to Hawaii are considering laws to require labels on food items that contain genetically modified ingredients.

Currently, only Connecticut and Maine have laws requiring labels for genetically modified food, but those requirements won't kick in until other states adopt their own rules. Bills to do just that are expected in more than two dozen states.

Seventy per cent of processed foods contain at least one ingredient made or derived from genetically modified crops, known as GMOs, according to the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest. The industry-backed Grocery Manufacturers Association puts the number between 70 and 80 per cent.

Genetic modifications to a plant can improve its quality, hardiness or resistance to pests or disease. Scientific studies have found no evidence GMOs are more harmful than foods without genetic modifications, but those pushing for label requirements point to the value in the information itself.

"I don't know if it's harmful or unhealthy, but it's something people have a right to know about," said Rhode Island state Rep. Dennis Canario, a Democrat sponsoring a labelling bill. "They put calories on a package. They put the fat content. If the ingredients have been genetically altered, shouldn't that be listed on there somewhere?"

The proposals are opposed by biotechnology companies and many agricultural groups, who say genetic engineering has yielded more sustainable, affordable and productive farming around the globe. Business groups worry labelling requirements would raise costs for food producers -- and ultimately consumers -- and raise unnecessary fears.

"This is mainstream agriculture," said Karen Batra, a spokeswoman with BIO, a biotechnology trade association. "It is how our food is grown, and it's how the vast majority of our commodity crops are grown. There's never been a single reported medical incident related to the consumption of these foods."

Voters in California and Washington rejected ballot proposals in the past two years that would have required GMO labelling. And in New Hampshire, state lawmakers defeated a GMO labelling bill Wednesday. Among other arguments, opponents said any labelling requirements would likely face a legal challenge.

"If you believe genetic modification produces food that has a health risk, then you're saying the FDA should be the one to label it," said New Hampshire state Rep. Linda Lauer, a Democrat and a retired chemist. "And if there's no health risk, then why are you requiring a label?"

So Connecticut and Maine continue to wait on other states to enact laws before their own will take effect. Lawmakers in those two states added the provisions to prevent a patchwork of state labelling rules that might be onerous to food producers.

The issue might be decided in Washington, where both sides are pushing for a federal standard on how GMO foods are labelled. The Food and Drug Administration, which says all genetically engineered foods must meet the same requirements as traditional foods, now allows producers to voluntarily label their items as genetically engineered or not.

Last month, the Grocery Manufacturers Association wrote to the FDA asking whether foods "derived from biotechnology" could be allowed to be labelled "natural." The association represents Monsanto Company, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble and hundreds of other companies. It notes GMOs have been on the market for two decades.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 23, 2014 B8

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