The debate over "GMO" foods is coming to 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.
The New Hampshire Grocers Association opposes the bill.
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.
"If I want to keep kosher, I want to know if there's a pig gene in my strawberry," she said. "The number of reasons different people have concerns is enormous, so that's why I filed the legislation."
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."
Under the proposal, any food offered for retail sale that's produced through such methods would have to have a "conspicuous" label reading "Produced with genetic engineering" or "Partially produced with genetic engineering."
For raw agricultural commodities, there would have to be a label either on the package or the shelf where they're displayed for sale.
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.
The issue has come up in the Legislature before, but never passed. "We're just hoping this time it's going to work," Mann said.
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.
That's why Connecticut, the first state to pass a GMO labeling law, postponed enactment until four other states, including a neighboring one, pass similar laws.
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.
The state Grocers Association is against the bill.
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.
If only some states require labeling, he said, food producers would have to maintain dual inventories. "To carry the two different stocks, one with labeling, one without labeling, that is going to mean an increase in the price of the food."
And those on food stamps or other welfare programs would be the hardest hit, he said.
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."
"If you do it any other way, you're going to harm some states."
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.
So why can't food producers avoid the extra costs of dual inventories by just labeling everything?
"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."
According to Dumais, 85 percent of the food in grocery stores today contains genetically modified ingredients. And he said the federal Food and Drug Administration has said such food is safe.
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.
"I hate to say it's too late to close the barn door," she said. "We're not talking about automobiles taking over for horses; we're talking about the world's food supply.
"And what labeling does is it at least lets people have choices."
Dumais contends it's only "a small minority" with a "loud voice" that supports labeling.
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.
Why did she get involved?
"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.
Time for a change
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."
Wright has been watching the GMO labeling debate nationally and in other states, including Washington, where there's a ballot initiative on the issue.
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.
Dumais contends the current system works fine, with organic producers free to label their products as "GMO free" if they choose.
But Wright said that's not good enough.
"Foods are made by nature. GMO foods are made in a lab," she said.
"So why should the people who are doing things the traditional way have to label? Shouldn't it be the people who are changing the rules of food production that have to label?"