Maine House votes yes to GMO labeling bill in landslide vote
AUGUSTA — Maine is on track to join several other states attempting to require food producers to label food containing genetically modified ingredients, following a landslide vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.
The 141-4 vote on L.D. 718, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, sets the stage for a legal entanglement between the state and agribusiness and biotech industry giant Monsanto, which has already threatened to sue states that pass similar labeling laws. The political battle between industry interests and the well-organized supporters of L.D. 718 has raged behind the scenes for several months at the State House, as the biotech industry fights to blunt a popular movement that has taken the GMO fight to at least 18 other state legislatures following failed attempts to pass labeling legislation in Congress.
Supporters of L.D. 718 relished the looming fight with Monsanto, the litigious international company widely vilified by supporters of the organic food movement. Harvell blasted the company, saying lawmakers should not give the industry “veto power” over a bill that tells people what’s in their food.
A lawsuit likely awaits Maine if the Legislature enacts L.D. 718, a bill co-sponsored by 120 lawmakers, including Democrats, independents and Republicans.
Attorney General Janet Mills, who was asked to review the constitutionality of the bill, told lawmakers on the Agriculture Committee that it is “almost certain” to face a legal challenge from the industry. Mills did not guarantee that her office would be able to defend its constitutionality.
“These entities are very litigious,” Mills told the committee.
Proponents of the bill, including the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, said it is up to states to take on industry to ensure that it discloses whether food is bio-engineered – its DNA has been spliced with that of an unrelated plant, animal, bacterium or virus – because Congress has failed to enact federal legislation.
No state has passed such a labeling law. At least 18 states are considering them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut recently passed a GMO labeling law. Vermont is on the verge of doing the same.
Lance Dutson, a spokesman for the business and industry coalition that’s opposing the bill, told the Press Herald in May that Mills’ review of the bill essentially reaffirmed the proposal has “serious constitutional concerns.”
The constitutional issue centers on free speech, specifically compelling food manufacturers and retailers to disclose ingredients that don’t pose a known public health risk.
The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Farm Bureau and the Grocery Manufacturers Association say the bill would unfairly stigmatize genetically modified foods despite a dearth of scientific research proving that such products are any less healthful than those that are conventionally grown.
Maine law now allows retailers to voluntarily label products as certified organic or “GMO-free.”
Harvell’s bill would prohibit retailers from labeling a product “natural” if it contained GMOs, genetically modified organisms.