Food-labeling fight expected in New Hampshire
A House committee on Thursday will consider whether to recommend that food with genetically modified ingredients be clearly labeled as such.
A subcommittee that has been working on a proposed law since last May recently voted 4-3 to recommend passage. Now it's the full Environment and Agriculture Committee's turn to take up House Bill 660.
Rep. Maureen Mann, D-Deerfield, the bill's sponsor, said its premise is simple: People have a right to know what's in their food.
The measure was "constituent driven," Mann said, citing a growing number of New Hampshire residents who have health, religious or environmental reasons to avoid genetically modified foods.
HB 660 uses the term "genetically engineered" (GE) instead of "genetically modified organism" (GMO). It defines GE as a process whereby food intended for human consumption is produced from an organism in which the genetics are "materially altered," either through in-vitro techniques or by methods of fusing cells "that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombinant barriers."
Fines and exemptions
There would be fines for noncompliance, and exemptions for restaurants, alcoholic beverages, "medical" food (prescribed by a physician for treatment of a medical condition) and products donated to charitable food banks.
There's growing momentum for GE labeling, Mann said, with about 20 other states, including Vermont, considering such laws. She said states in the Northeast are trying to adopt similar labeling language to make it easier for food producers to comply with new mandates.
Mann's bill, which was amended by the subcommittee after hearing from people on both sides of the issue, has a similar provision. The law will only take effect here if state officials certify that at least four other northeastern states have adopted mandatory GE labeling by Jan. 1, 2018.
John Dumais, president and CEO, said he welcomes one change that he pushed for: exempting food donated to food banks. But he said the association still opposes the labeling mandate.
Dumais said it's up to the federal government to address whether genetically modified food should be labeled. "Our position as an association is that we certainly believe in transparency, in letting the consumer know, only if it's done uniformly, and that means nationwide."
Downside of labeling
Dumais said 40 percent of grocery sales annually in New Hampshire are to out-of-state customers who shop here because of the state's cheaper tobacco, alcohol and gas. If GE labeling pushed up the price of food, the state could lose those customers, he said.
"Because it's a negative factor," Dumais said. "It's saying, 'This has something in it,' and most of the consumers don't understand what that means and are concerned about it."
Mann acknowledged the widespread use of genetically modified foods such as corn, soy and sugar beet. But she said there's still time for New Hampshire to legislate some transparency.
"And what labeling does is it at least lets people have choices."
If so, one of the loudest voices is that of Bonnie Wright of Salem. She is an advocate with New Hampshire Right to Know GMO, a fledgling grassroots organization pushing for labeling.
"Got sick," she said. "The doctors could not figure out what was wrong with me."
After a friend suggested switching to organic food, Wright changed her diet and her health improved. "It was like somebody had turned a light switch on me," she said.
And while she can't say for certain that GMO ingredients are what her body reacts to, she decided "something needed to be done."
"We have the right to know what we're eating and what we're feeding our children," she said. "And without the transparency that a label provides, we don't have that ability to know what it is."
A similar initiative failed in California last year; Wright said the biotech industry spent $46 million to defeat it. "And they're doing it again in Washington as we speak," she said.
But Wright said that's not good enough.
"Foods are made by nature. GMO foods are made in a lab," she said.