November 13, 2013

N.H. lawmakers deliver blow to Maine modified-food labeling bill

Four nearby states have to join in for Maine’s law to go into effect, but a committee just voted down a bill in New Hampshire.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Legislation in Maine that would require food producers to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients has been dealt a significant blow by lawmakers in New Hampshire.

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A label on a snack item indicates it as certified organic and not containing any GMOs or genetically modified organisms, at a Portland supermarket, Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

2013 File Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Last week, a legislative committee in New Hampshire voted 12-8 against a labeling bill similar to Maine’s.

Although Maine’s law passed earlier this year with broad bipartisan support and the promise of a signature from Gov. Paul LePage, it will take effect only if five contiguous states pass labeling laws.

The vote by New Hampshire’s House Environment and Agriculture Committee did not kill that labeling bill, which will be considered by the full Legislature. But it marks a change in the politics that could doom its passage.

Unlike in Maine, the vote broke along party lines, with Republican committee members largely opposing it. Democrats have a 42-vote majority in the New Hampshire House, while Republicans have a two-seat advantage in the Senate.

“It became more partisan in New Hampshire,” said Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, the lead sponsor of the Maine bill. “It definitely makes things a lot tougher for our side.”

Harvell said industry groups that oppose labeling laws were better prepared in New Hampshire than they were in Maine and Connecticut, the first two states to pass such legislation.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents more than 300 food producers, opposed Maine’s legislation and has defeated ballot initiatives to create labeling laws in California and Washington.

News reports from Washington said industry groups spent about $22 million to defeat the ballot measure there last week. In California, where voters narrowly defeated a labeling bill in 2012, the biotech food products industry outspent advocates, $45 million to $6.7 million, according to published reports.

The national battle over labeling laws has pitted activists in the organic food movement against a consortium led by the biotech industry and corporate food producers such as General Mills, Nestle USA and Monsanto.

The activists are pursuing a state-by-state strategy to enact labeling laws for foods with genetically modified ingredients, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates comprise 70 percent of the products sold in American supermarkets. The Food and Drug Administration regulates genetically modified foods, but the regulators have left testing to the industry that is producing them.

Opponents of labeling laws say they stigmatize genetically modified foods despite a dearth of scientific research proving that they are any less healthful than those that are grown conventionally.

It appeared that industry heavyweights were initially taken aback by activists who introduced labeling legislation this year in at least 30 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Maine, the advocates of labeling laws include the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which hired one of the state’s top lobbying firms, Preti Flaherty.

An industry coalition that opposed the bill included the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The coalition hired lobbyist Robert Tardy and Red Hill Strategies, a startup consulting firm in Portland led by Republican operative Lance Dutson and Mike Leavitt, a former chief of staff for the Republican National Committee.

The bill brought together such factions as libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats, creating strong support. So far, that hasn’t happened in New Hampshire.

Dan Walker, a lobbyist for Preti Flaherty who advocated for the Maine bill, acknowledged that industry groups that opposed it were better prepared in New Hampshire. “They are starting to wake up,” he said.

The provision requiring passage in contiguous states was added to the Maine bill to help build broad support.

Proponents of the bill said the provision would quell concerns about an almost-certain lawsuit by industry groups and Monsanto, which vowed to challenge the laws in Maine and Connecticut on the basis that they violate the free speech and interstate commerce provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills told lawmakers that the bill was almost certain to face a legal challenge, and said she could not guarantee that her office could defend its constitutionality.

Harvell said supporters agreed to include the contiguous-states provision to get more votes and the governor’s signature. LePage has said that he will sign the bill in January, to allow other states to take action and to give Maine time to better prepare its legal arguments against a lawsuit.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

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Today's poll: Food labeling

Should food producers be required to identify ingredients that are genetically modified on labels?

Yes

No

View Results