AUGUSTA — Maine is on track to join several other states attempting to require food producers to label food containing genetically modified ingredients, following a landslide vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The House voted to support L.D. 718, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, sets the stage for a legal entanglement between the state and agribusiness and biotech industry giant Monsanto, which already has threatened to sue states that pass similar labeling laws. The political battle between industry interests and the well-organized supporters of L.D. 718 has raged behind the scenes for several months at the State House, as the biotech industry fights to blunt a popular movement that has taken the GMO fight to at least 18 other legislatures following failed attempts to pass labeling legislation in Congress.

The House voted 141–4 in favor of an amendment that would trigger the labeling requirement once five contiguous states, including Maine, pass similar labeling legislation. Supporters of L.D. 718, a bill co-sponsored by 120 lawmakers, including Democrats, independents and Republicans, relished the looming fight with Monsanto, the litigious international company widely vilified by supporters of the organic food movement. Harvell blasted the company, saying lawmakers should not give the industry “veto power” over a bill that tells people what’s in their food.

“In this body alone we have routinely taken on the federal government, which is supposedly the most powerful government in the world,” Harvell said. “And yet, if a corporation threatens us, we fear them more? Are we going to give these people veto power over this body and the people of the state of Maine? Do we really live in a world where they have more power than our federal government? It’s a question that we should ask.”

A lawsuit probably will await Maine if the labeling bill becomes law.

Attorney General Janet Mills, who was asked to review the bill’s constitutionality, told lawmakers on the Agriculture Committee that it is “almost certain” to face a legal challenge from the industry. Mills did not guarantee that her office would be able to defend its constitutionality. Proponents of the bill, including the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, said it is up to states to take on industry to ensure that it discloses whether food is bio-engineered — its DNA has been spliced with that of an unrelated plant, animal, bacterium or virus — because Congress has failed to enact federal legislation.

No state has passed such a labeling law. At least 18 states are considering them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut recently passed a GMO labeling law that is nearly identical to amended version of L.D. 718. Vermont is on the verge of doing the same. A similar bill is under consideration by the New Hampshire Legislature.

Lance Dutson, a spokesman for the business and industry coalition that’s opposing the bill, told the Portland Press Herald in May that Mills’ review of the bill essentially reaffirmed the proposal has “serious constitutional concerns.”

The constitutional issue centers on free speech, specifically compelling food manufacturers and retailers to disclose ingredients that don’t pose a known public health risk. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Farm Bureau and the Grocery Manufacturers Association say the bill would stigmatize genetically modified foods despite a dearth of scientific research proving that such products are any less healthful than those that are grown conventionally.

Maine law now allows retailers to label products voluntarily as certified organic or “GMO-free.”

Harvell’s bill would prohibit retailers from labeling a product “natural” if it contained GMOs, genetically modified organisms.

Advocates of new regulations say scientific evidence is emerging that genetically modified foods can increase health risks and food allergies. They say federal regulators have left testing up to the industry that is producing and profiting from genetically modified products.

Labeling supporters argue that independent testing on GMO foods hasn’t happened because industry patents prohibit it.

“If it’s so unique that it requires a patent, then I say that it’s time that it requires a label,” Harvell said.

Harvell, during a rousing floor speech, said Tuesday that if GMO foods are so unique that they require a patent, the public can’t be sure that it’s safe to eat.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates genetically modified foods but does not approve them. The agency assumes the foods are safe until confronted with evidence that they’re not. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, has worked on labeling legislation in Congress. He told lawmakers during a public hearing on Maine’s bill that federal regulators have ceded review of genetically modified products to ensure that the industry — not the government — is legally liable if health problems surface.

Opponents say a labeling law would be costly to farmers and sellers, who would have to review affidavits to determine whether the food they’re selling contains genetically modified ingredients.

The Legislature previously has rejected four GMO-labeling bills, but supporters say there is growing support for a law.

The proposal endorsed by the House differs from the original bill. It would not take effect until five other contiguous states pass similar legislation.

Some lawmakers worried that the amended version would doom the labeling effort because one state could derail the effort if it doesn’t pass labeling legislation. Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, said the altered bill effectively would grant New Hampshire veto power over Maine’s effort if Granite State lawmakers don’t pass a labeling law.

Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough said the amended bill would help defray some of the anticipated legal costs and “send a message to the federal government.”

The bill now moves to the Senate for a vote. The bill may face a steeper climb among Republican state senators. Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, on Monday described the bill as a Democrat-led effort on a conservative website.

The LePage administration testified against the bill during the public hearing. Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the governor had not yet taken a position on the amended bill.

In May the U.S. Senate rejected an amendment by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that would give states the power to require genetically modified food to be labeled as such. U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, voted for the amendment. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted against it.

Steve Mistler — 620-7016
smistler@pressherald.com
Twitter: @stevemistler