AUGUSTA, MAINE — Supporters of a Maine law that would require labels on foods grown with the use of genetically modified organisms are getting ready for a new fight in the statehouse.
The state crafted a law in January 2014 that will require the labels if five contiguous states, including Maine, pass labeling laws. But some lawmakers then began a drive to repeal the trigger, putting the law in effect, and a key statehouse panel is expected to take up the issue in coming weeks.
Supporters of labeling foods made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are divided on whether the trigger should stay. Some label supporters, and some opponents, argue that repealing the trigger would leave Maine with different rules than nearby states, and local grocers on the hook for the cost of the labels. Others say the state should have the right to act on the labels on its own.
Still others on both sides have said the state should wait to see what federal lawmakers do with the issue, since industry-supported legislation that is pending U.S. Senate approval would pre-empt any state labeling requirements.
Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, a sponsor of the bill to repeal the trigger provision and a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said she believes there is a political will to remove the trigger.
However, she added there are concerns in the statehouse about Vermont's GMO labeling law, which has faced legal challenges. Ultimately, the bill is about protecting consumers' rights, she said.
"We're not saying we're banning foods with GMOs, but you should be able to be informed and make choices about what you eat," Dunphy said.
Rep. Dustin White, R-Washburn, a co-sponsor of Dunphy's bill, said he has come to sympathize with concerns about passing the cost of labeling on to Maine stores.
"If manufacturers don't do it nationally, it would be left to small-town grocery stores. It would create a much more tedious process for Maine grocers," he said.
Opponents of GMO labeling laws — including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, conventional agribusinesses and biotech interests — cite broad scientific consensus that genetically engineered food is safe to eat. They have fought any new labeling provisions adamantly.
The Maine Farm Bureau supports GMO labels but also thinks the multi-state trigger provision should stay, said Alicyn Smart executive director of the bureau.
"By delaying implementation of the bill until five contiguous states pass similar regulations, the bill provides a level playing field and other economic protections for Maine farmers who buy, sell, or otherwise market in adjacent or nearby states," Smart said.
Maine's law includes an automatic repeal if mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food is not adopted by at least five contiguous states, including Maine, by Jan. 1, 2018. That leaves passage incumbent on New Hampshire adopting a law, which that state has not done.