The Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association is leveling criticism against both of Maine’s U.S. senators for their votes this week that could lead to a federal law that would overturn a Maine law requiring labels for foods made with genetically modified organisms.

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King joined 65 other senators Wednesday in a vote to take up a bill aimed at creating a federal GMO labeling law.

The association contends that the proposal, which is being touted as a compromise by its sponsors, is far weaker and less transparent than laws approved by state legislatures, including Maine’s.

The Maine law passed in 2014 would require labeling on GMO products once five contiguous states have passed similar legislation, with the law taking effect in 2018 if the five-state threshold was crossed. So far, only Maine, Connecticut and Vermont have enacted a labeling law. Vermont’s law went into effect Friday. New Hampshire lawmakers voted down a GMO labeling measure in February.

“It is tragic that Collins and King are defying the unanimous sentiment of Maine’s State House of Representatives, Maine’s State Senate, Maine’s Governor, Maine’s Attorney General, and 95 percent of Maine citizens who support Maine’s labeling law,” association officials wrote in an alert urging their supporters to contact King and Collins to voice their displeasure.

Heather Spalding, deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, said in an interview Friday that King and Collins previously voted to support Maine’s labeling law, and their members were “very disappointed” by Wednesday’s vote.

“We are hoping that they will change course and defend Maine’s GMO labeling law and support the consumer’s right to know,” Spalding said.

Representatives for King and Collins said Friday that the two senators had not made up their minds on the bill yet, and that Wednesday’s vote was largely procedural.

“As Senators Collins and King continue to review the proposed compromise bill, they will take into account the concerns of all interested parties and arrive at a decision that they believe is best for Maine businesses and consumers,” Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Collins, and Scott Ogden, a spokesman for King, said in a joint statement. “The vote on Wednesday was a procedural motion that simply allows the Senate to debate this legislation. The vote was not a statement of position.”


The bill requires labeling with either a logo, a QR or “quick response” code that can be scanned with a smartphone, or a toll-free number for consumers to call. It doesn’t, however, require a direct disclosure on the package of GMO ingredients. In the case of the QR code, it would require the words, “scan here for food information.” The bill also prohibits companies from collecting, selling, analyzing or keeping any personal consumer information.

“For the first time ever, consumers will have a national, mandatory label for food products that contain genetically modified ingredients,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said in a prepared statement. The bill’s other sponsor is Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas.

Critics such as the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, a nonprofit organization of about 150 Maine farms and food producers along with 5,000 individuals, say the Stabenow-Roberts bill lacks transparency in that it doesn’t call for clear food labels and instead would require a consumer to call for information or scan a special image on the food’s packaging with a smartphone that would then display the information about any GMOs used in the food’s production. The legislation would also change the language around GMOs, instead calling them “bioengineered” ingredients.

Spalding said all of those provisions are problematic for consumers, especially in states without strong broadband systems.

“One of the big concerns is in rural Maine oftentimes you don’t have a connection,” she said. She also said both King and Collins are usually advocates for state’s rights, but in many ways the Stabenow-Roberts bill “would undermine, overturn and preempt the existing laws in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine.”

She said that while some have argued there’s no scientific evidence GMOs pose health dangers, people have varying reasons for wanting to know what’s in their food. She said everything from food allergies to religious concerns factor into the reasons people want GMOs in food identified.

The Stabenow-Roberts bill does have food-industry supporters in Maine and nationally, including the national Organic Trade Association, which represents about 8,500 organic businesses in all 50 states.

“If you consider what the opponents of GMO labeling proposed, and what the voluntary and state-by-state options would have offered, it’s hard not to see how this mandatory federal legislation is a constructive solution to a complex issue,” a statement from the OTA read.


Shelley Doak, the executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, a trade organization representing most of the state’s grocery stores and food wholesalers, said that organization also supports the Stabenow-Roberts proposal.

Doak said the association also worked to reach a compromise on Maine’s law, which she described as “a beacon shining a light on Congress to please address this issue to develop a federal standard, a federal system that is broadly acceptable by all the market elements.”

State-by-state labeling laws create a “patchwork quilt” system for food producers and distributors that would likely be costly to maintain, Doak said. She understood some of the concerns being voiced by MOFGA, which she said was a cooperative partner in developing Maine’s law.

“But I appreciate the proposal is a compromise and that means that all interested parties came to the table and didn’t get everything they wanted,” Doak said.

She said proponents were urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would administer the new federal labeling law were it to pass, to build on Vermont’s law, which took effect Friday.

“We will be encouraging the USDA to recognize the work, the significant work, the state of Vermont has done to establish its own program and there are thousands of companies doing business in Vermont that are impacted by their legislation and we hope that there will be a strong recognition that there is a structure system already in existence and perhaps build on that with a federal system,” Doak said.

If the bill does pass the Senate, labeling still faces an uncertain future in the House of Representatives, which earlier this year passed its own GMO labeling law. Critics describe that as even weaker than the bill now before the Senate. The House bill calls for largely voluntary disclosure and includes no mechanisms for enforcement.