BOSTON -- A state law that would require genetically engineered food and seeds to be labeled on packages and on shelves has cleared a major hurdle.

The Massachusetts Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture approved the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act during an executive session on Wednesday, the final day for the legislation to be approved by the committee before the next session.

At the Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington on Tuesday, dozens of people signed an online petition in support of the legislation.

"It's a big step forward," said state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, who sits on the committee.

"It appears to be just what we are looking for," she said. "Numerous constituents are really pushing for this stuff. I myself want to know what I eat."

The law requires all packaged food with genetically engineered food to be labeled as such, and any raw agricultural food that is unpackaged, to be labeled on the store shelf or bin. It defines genetically engineered material as any process to develop food through cell fusion, DNA technology or any method not possible under natural conditions using traditional breeding, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization or tissue culture.

The passage through the joint committee, which includes members of the state Senate and House, is a crucial step toward getting the bill in front of the full Legislature.

The bill approved on Wednesday carves out genetically engineered labeling exemptions for farm products sold by a farmer or farmer's agent at a farmers market, roadside stand, or pick-your-own farm; restaurant food; processed food meant for immediate consumption and alcoholic beverages. Food from an animal that was fed genetically engineered food does not have to be labeled as genetically engineered, under the legislation.

The bill didn't include a proposed provision that would have stripped the natural label from food with genetically modified organism food.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, who is also on the committee, said he voted to move the bill forward this week.

"It's a step in the right direction for Massachusetts, making sure consumers have all of the information they are entitled to," he said.

Martin Dagoberto, campaign coordinator for MA Right to Know GMOs, which helped lobby for the legislation said he was "feeling pretty good" about Wednesday's news.

Under the bill passed in the joint committee on Wednesday, four other states with a combined population totaling 20 million, would have to approve similar legislation in order for the law to take effect. So far, Connecticut and Maine have passed such laws. There is a bill in the Vermont Legislature that has passed the House, Dagoberto said.

Dagoberto said the requirements for other states to pass the law are intended to boost confidence in the measures in the face of a threatened lawsuit by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which has been lobbying against the bills. A message left with the organization's Washington D.C. office was not returned as of press time.

Dagoberto, who studied biotechnology in college, said his concern was that companies can be "reckless" when it comes to making genetically modified organism (GMO) food. The products, he said, are not tested by the federal government since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate them, since a 1992 policy statement on the issue. "These products are not being adequately tested. Companies do their own testing," Dagoberto said. He said the FDA was relying on the companies for their test results.

The Associated Press reported last month that the Grocery Manufacturers Association, National Corngrowers Association and other trade groups are lobbying Congress to pass a bill that would require the FDA to create a voluntary label for genetically modified food, to head off pushes in other states for mandatory labels.

The proposed legislation would require the FDA to do a safety review of any new genetically engineered ingredients. The FDA has not yet found safety issues in genetically modified food, the AP reported.

Downing said the joint committee was given presentations detailing studies on the safety of GMO's. The presentations gave differing views on the subject, he said.

About 90 percent of corn produced in the United States is genetically modified and approximately 80 percent of soy and cottenseed is genetically engineered, Dagoberto said.

With the federal government not taking any action on the GMO issue, "we need the states to lead the way," Dagoberto said.

The legislation still must go through at least one other committee before heading to the full Legislature for a vote.

To reach Nathan Mayberg:
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