AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House took a step Tuesday toward requiring genetically modified food products carry special labels. If the measure ultimately becomes law, its success will depend on action taken by lawmakers in four nearby states.
The Maine House voted to support a bill, LD 718, that would require genetically modified food products carry labels that state “Produced with Genetic Engineering.” The 141-4 vote was in favor of an amendment that would have the labeling requirement take effect once four other contiguous states pass similar laws.
The bill originally would have taken effect if five other states anywhere in the United States passed similar legislation or any combination of states with a total population of at least 20 million.
“It does not make Maine an outlier,” said Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, the bill’s primary sponsor.
The measure now faces votes in the Senate and an additional vote in the House.
During debate on the House floor Tuesday, there was little disagreement about the value of labeling genetically modified food products.
“The consumers have a right to know,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop. “The people want to know what’s in their food, and they want to be able to make a choice that’s right.”
Even those who championed genetic engineering in agriculture said they could support requiring those products carry labels.
“The American farmer today can feed the world because we have experimented. We have done research, and hybrid,” said Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell. “I’m not against GMO labeling. What I fear is that this bill may lead to the curtailment or stopping of GMO experiments.”
Debate on the House floor largely centered on whether having Maine’s labeling requirement depend on lawmakers in four other states was the best path forward for the requirement to have a realistic chance of taking effect.
“It effectively gives New Hampshire veto power,” said Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom.
“I think we should lead. I think we should do it on our own,” said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. “I believe we will be taking a stand against the corporatization of our food. I believe we will be empowering our consumers.”
But others said the requirement that four other states pass similar rules into law made the most sense, especially considering the specter of legal challenges from biotechnology and food manufacturers.
“We understand there are some legal concerns,” said Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough. “Allowing us to be part of a consortium of other states would help defray some of those costs and send a message to the federal government.”
A number of states are currently considering GMO labeling requirements, and Connecticut recently passed the first such requirement in the country into law. The Legislature there passed a similar law to the bill pending in Maine, which would take effect only if additional states pass similar laws.
Last month, the Vermont House became the first legislative body to pass such a labeling requirement. If successful, that measure could take effect July 1, 2015, even if no other states have passed similar laws.
Also last month, U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., introduced an unsuccessful amendment in the Senate that Sanders said would protect states from legal challenges if they required GMO labels.
Maine’s senators, independent Angus King and Republican Susan Collins split on the amendment vote. King supported it while Collins voted against it.
In the Maine Legislature, more than 120 lawmakers signed onto the labeling bill as co-sponsors.