A task force created to discuss genetically engineered foods met for the first time last week to discuss how Connecticut can require companies to label genetically modified food.
A bill which would have required growers and producers to label any genetically modified food products sold in Connecticut passed the Environment Committee in March by a 23-6 vote, but it never came up for a vote in the House before the session ended in May.
Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, who was one of the bill’s biggest proponents, said the labeling provision was stripped after opponents threatened a lawsuit and said any forced labeling provision would be unconstitutional.
Roy said public information on the food industry is minimal because genetically modified products are patented and because of the lack of independent testing.
Many crops, such as corn and soybeans, grown in the United States have been modified to resist pesticides or insects. Corporations that grow the food often patent their techniques.
“It’s a matter of education and secrecy,” Roy said.
But some members of the task force, headed by Rep. Philip Miller, argued that the public has a right to know about what they consume and will create another bill that they hope will pass next year.
However, Rep. Elaine O’Brien, D-Suffield, said she still has concerns that the labeling would scare and therefore harm the public.
Rep. John Shaban, R- Redding, also voiced reservations to the original bill.
“No matter what we do here today at the state of Connecticut, a labeling ban on GMOs will be subject to challenge both on federal preemption issues with the Food and Drug Act or just basic dormant Commerce Clause preemption issues in general,” Shaban said.
Lawmakers argued the state should leave it up to the Federal Food and Drug Administration to make a decision about whether to label these products.
“I thought we were charging in a little too broadly and too premature,” Shaban said of the initial attempt at the bill. “Sometimes it takes running into the barricade a couple of times in order to break through it.”
The original legislation was opposed by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture and the Connecticut Farm Bureau.
The FDA determined that labeling for genetically engineered foods is not scientifically or legally warranted unless the product has a difference in nutritional value or contains an allergy, Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, said during a public hearing in February.
Food labeling would have ramifications on producers and food providers that would be costly for farmers in terms of separate inventories, labeling, and segregation, he said. Ultimately the passage of the bill would require higher packaging costs.
The state Department of Agriculture opposed the legislation because Connecticut would be at a competitive disadvantage with other states if it sets standards that the federal government does not set for the nation.
Miller, knowing that Connecticut agriculture is a $3.5 billion industry, said farmers’ concerns should be taken into account.
No single state has established a law requiring the labeling of modified food, but Roy already is brainstorming ways to work with the federal government. He suggested that states become allies in order to gain attention in Washington.
So far, Connecticut’s interest in food labeling is shared with California and Vermont, Roy said.
This year in California there will be a referendum on labeling of genetically modified foods.