- By STEVE MISTLER

State House Bureau

AUGUSTA – A bill that would require food producers to label products containing genetically engineered ingredients continued to march forward in the Legislature.

The Senate voted 35-0 Wednesday to pass an amended version of the bill, L.D. 718, mirroring a similarly overwhelming vote in the House the day before. Supporters of the bill, including the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, hope Gov. Paul LePage will support a compromise provision that triggers the labeling requirement once five contiguous states, including Maine, adopt labeling laws.

The governor has not taken a position on the bill, but even if it becomes law, the labeling requirement will hinge on whether a bill is approved in New Hampshire, the only state with which Maine shares a border.

A GMO (genetically modified organism)-labeling bill has been submitted to the New Hampshire Legislature. The public hearing was more than five hours long, according to N.H. state Rep. Tara Sad, D-Walpole, chairwoman of the Environment and Agriculture Committee, which is working on the proposal.

Like Maine, the labeling bill in New Hampshire is the product of a growing and well-organized organic food movement that is determined to take on the biotech industry and Monsanto, the agribusiness and biotech industry giant, following an unsuccessful effort to do so in Congress.

Monsanto has threatened to sue states that pass similar labeling laws, one reason lawmakers in several states are passing labeling legislation that depends on other states doing the same. The state compacts could help defray costs of a lawsuit.

Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said Tuesday that the compact creates a higher hurdle for the labeling law and makes passage of L.D. 718 somewhat symbolic until other states join Maine.

“It also sends a message to Monsanto and the biotech industry,” said Harvell, adding that the industry was reeling from legislation that has appeared in at least 18 other statehouses this year.

L.D. 718 is not Maine’s first genetically modified food labeling bill, nor is H.B. 660 the first to appear before the New Hampshire Legislature. Sad, who has been in the New Hampshire Legislature for seven years, said the recent proposal was the fourth she’s seen.

Sad acknowledged that there is more momentum behind the latest effort, but lawmakers there are proceeding cautiously.

She said lawmakers were sensitive to the threat of a lawsuit and had waited to see how other states had proceeded.

“We’re a poor state,” Sad said. “We have no tax, we have no sales tax, we have no income tax. The idea that we would be risking a very costly lawsuit because of a bill that we filed is very scary, although that’s not justification enough to not pass a bill that’s good.”

She said that her committee would hold work additional sessions on H.B. 660 beginning in August. The bill must be reported out of committee by Nov. 22. The earliest it could be enacted is in 2014.

Proponents of the Maine 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 bioengineered — meaning its DNA has been spliced with that of an unrelated plant, animal, bacterium or virus — because Congress has failed to enact federal legislation.

Opponents, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Farm Bureau and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, say the bill would unfairly stigmatize genetically modified foods despite a dearth of research suggesting such products are less nutritious than those conventionally grown.

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

Harvell’s bill would prohibit retailers from labeling any product “natural” if it contained 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.

Supporters of labeling argue that independent testing of genetically modified foods hasn’t happened because industry patents prohibit it.

The federal Food and Drug Administration regulates genetically modified foods but does not approve them. The agency assumes that the foods are safe until confronted with evidence that they’re not.

The Maine Legislature has rejected four previous GMO-labeling bills.

L.D. 718 requires more votes before reaching LePage’s desk.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler