Earlier this year, a bipartisan bill that would have required a label on foods that contain genetically modified organisms was tabled for fear it would provoke a lawsuit. At a Wednesday rally, the bill’s proponent, retiring Rep. Richard Roy, said “Let them sue us.”
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are crops have been genetically engineered not to die when sprayed with herbicide. They’re commonly used in the production of soybeans, corn, canola, and cotton. While more than 60 countries have required that consumers be notified that they’re purchasing food containing GMOs, the United States has not.
If it passed, Connecticut’s legislation would have been the first of its kind as an attempt to regulate an area of the food industry that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has — more or less— chosen to ignore. The FDA argues that genetically modified food is generally recognized as safe and therefore does not warrant a label for consumers.
It’s a position that some dispute. But advocates say it’s irrelevant whether GMOs are safe for consumption because consumers deserve to know what they are eating.
Tara Cook-Littman is a mother and activist who has organized a grassroots campaign to get the labeling legislation passed. She led Wednesday’s rally of about 60 people outside the Legislative Office Building.
“I don’t have the right to choose what to feed my children. I cannot choose whether or not to buy GMOs because there is no labeling. Honestly, I’m getting ready to move to France. I’m going to move there because at least there I would be able to choose what to feed my children,” she said.
The original legislation was opposed by both 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 allergen, Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, said during a public hearing last 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.
Nonetheless, Connecticut’s legislature was on track to require the labels for foods sold in the state. The bill was passed out of the Environment Committee with support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But legislative leaders cooled to the idea after similar efforts in Vermont were stopped by the threat of litigation from biotech giant Monsanto.
Critics of efforts to force companies to disclose when foods contain genetically modified ingredients argue that it impedes the First Amendment rights of companies, and amounts to state governments forcing the industry to speak.
Roy, D-Milford, welcomed the litigation, saying it could force the same interests to speak under oath.
“What leadership in our government, I’m going to put it that way, did was to panic and worry about a lawsuit. Well, we need a lawsuit. Let them sue us. Let them go to court and testify under oath,” he said.
Roy said the bill made it through the committee process, evidence that it did not violate the constitution.
Rep. Phillip Miller, an Ivorytown Democrat who chairs the legislature’s GMO Task Force, said the goal this year is to write similar legislation in a way that shields the state from litigation.
Later in the day, Miller, Roy, and the rest of the task force heard from lawyer and author Steven Druker, who spoke to the group via Skype. Druker told the lawmakers on the task force they would be well within their rights to pass the legislation.
He said the FDA has illegally refused to regulate GMOs. That’s because they don’t fit the standard to be “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS.
Druker said when Congress passed that standard, their intent was to prevent companies from having to re-test food additives that already had been scientifically studied. The GRAS standard requires that the assertion that something is safe for consumption be backed by studies. He said those studies don’t exist in the case of GMOs. Druker had some harsh words for the FDA on their handling of the issue.
“In light of the FDA’s brazen disregard for truth, science, and the law in regard to genetically engineered foods, and its willingness to regularly subject American families to novel foods that its own scientists warned are uniquely hazardous, it would be serious understatement to characterize the actions as merely irresponsible . . . they are reprehensible,” Druker said.
In that situation, Druker said any state has the right to enact legislation to compensate for the FDA’s inaction. He suggested legislatures have the authority to not only require labels for the foods, but also to ban them from store shelves until the GMOs have been adequately studied.
Roy, who did not seek re-election this year and will not be in the legislature next year to push for such a ban, recommended his colleagues consider such a provision.