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GMO labeling gets another look in two New England states

Today and tomorrow the Rhode Island House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare and the House side of the New Hampshire General Court will hear bills about labeling food made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

A bipartisan majority of the New Hampshire Environment and Agriculture Committee led by Rep. John O’Connor, R-Derry, has recommended against passage of House Bill (HB) 1674.  New Hampshire’s General Court hears both majority and minority reports on the floor. Rep. Peter Bixby, D-Dover, filed for the minority.

newhampshirecapitol_406x250O’Connor says requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods was previously rejected by General Court, and remains unnecessary. He says the fiscal note estimates it would cost taxpayers $100,000 to $200,000 per year for additional personnel costs for the Attorney General to make rules, conduct civil investigations and take legal actions. In addition, it would impose unfunded mandates on New Hampshire’s 16 self-inspecting towns.

On a 12-7 vote, the committee majority filed a report that suggests New Hampshire should support national labeling as outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the “SmartLabel” being developed by the food industry to allow a smart phone to scan an item for all available information about it including if there are any genetically engineered ingredients contained therein.

Rep. Bixby’s minority report argues the public has a right to know what is in their food and suggests some, including those of the Jewish faith, need the information because of the religious doctrine known as Kilayim, Leviticus 19:19 says “you shall not mate your animal into another species, you shall not plant your field with mixed seed; and a garment that is a mixture of combined fibers shall not come upon you.”

Others say there is no prohibition of Kilayim in the genetic engineering of plants unless the material being transferred from one species to another has the ability, if planted in the ground, to grow a complete plant on its own and this is seldom the case with genetic engineering.

The minority points to neighboring Vermont where the federal district court has found the right to know is sufficient state interest to justify imposing such state regulations.

“The person with digestive disorders who wants to be extra cautious with her food has a right to know. The person who is not convinced the federal government has done its due diligence in safety testing has a right to know and is justified in that doubt. In 1992, notwithstanding the advice of the agency’s scientists, the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that foods produced with genetic engineering were substantially equivalent to natural foods and were legally ‘Generally Recognized as Safe,’ ” Bixby’s report says.

“Since that time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s oversight of GMO foods has been limited to assessing pest and disease risks. The FDA’s role is even smaller. All safety assessments are optional and done by choice by the companies that produce the GMOs. The optional review process, in which the biotech companies send the safety data they choose to the FDA in exchange for a letter saying they did so, has all the weight of a rubber stamp.”

The 400-member House, currently controlled 238 to 140 by the Republicans, makes the New Hampshire General Court the second largest legislative body in the U.S. Only Congress is larger. The GOP also controls the Senate, 14 to 10.

In Rhode Island, the House Committee on Health, Education, and Welfare is hearing several competing GMO labeling bills. (Editor’s note: Rhode Island House bills can be accessed free online, but that requires setting up an account, meaning we cannot provide links here.) Those bills are:

  • HB 7082 requires that any genetically engineered food be labeled as such.
  • HB 7255 would require all food businesses, except restaurants, with gross sales over $500,000 to post sings saying all food items contain GMOs unless labels say otherwise.
  • HB 7256 request labels or marks on all milk or milk products containing GMOs.
  • HB 7274 requires the labeling of all raw or packaged food the is entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering.

At the same hearing today, lawmakers will also decided if dogs should be permitted in the dining areas of restaurants.

Democrats control the Rhode Island Legislature with 32 of the 38 seats in the Senate and 63 of the 75 House seats.


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