Bioengineering back on the ballot

by Jeff Gelski
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Barely two months after the rejection by California voters of Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of bioengineered foods in the nation’s most populous state, labeling proponents pointed to initiatives and legislation in other states that ensured the issue will remain alive and contentious in 2013.

With state legislatures opening their 2013 sessions across the country, bills requiring labeling of bioengineered foods and feed already have been introduced in New Mexico and Missouri, and a Washington state voter initiative will be considered by the legislature of that state. Labeling proponents also expressed confidence state legislatures in Vermont and Connecticut soon will see labeling bills introduced.

In New Mexico, State Senator Peter Wirth of Santa Fe introduced Senate Bill 18, which would amend the New Mexico Food Act to require the labeling of both food and commercial feed that contain bioengineered materials. Labels would have to be displayed in a manner that is conspicuous and easily understandable to consumers, the bill stated.

The bill defined “a genetically modified food product” as a food that is composed of more than 1% of “genetically modified material.” Similarly, “a genetically commercial feed” was defined as a feed composed of more than 1% of “genetically modified material.”

The bill would require the state’s Environmental Improvement Board to adopt and promulgate rules to establish standards for measuring and quantifying the amount of bioengineered material in a food or feed.

The measure further would enable the state’s Department of Environment to “conduct any investigation it deems necessary to verify the accuracy of labeling of food products pursuant to the New Mexico Food Act.”

Unlike California’s Proposition 37, which was rejected by California voters last November, the New Mexico bill would look to the state and its agencies to enforce the law’s provisions and not rely on citizen-initiated lawsuits. Also unlike Proposition 37, it provided no exceptions to the labeling rules.

“The premise of this amendment is simple — New Mexicans deserve to know what’s in the food they are eating and feeding to their families,” Mr. Wirth said. “Labeling genetically modified foods and feed will empower consumers with basic information to help them decide for themselves the types of food they want to buy.”

Mr. Wirth also indicated an aim was to support small organic farmers who are competing with large commercial farms.

“It is leveling the playing fields” Mr. Wirth told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “If we know what is in the food and we can make a choice, I certainly know that I’m going to be choosing those products that are not using genetically modified ingredients, and that will help our New Mexico businesses as we go shopping.”

Beverly Idsinga, executive director of Dairy Producers of New Mexico, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that current laws that allow for labeling of organic products already give consumers a choice about food ingredients.

“I think it would actually raise food costs in New Mexico,” Ms. Idsinga said. “I don’t think the larger companies would even sell to New Mexico anymore because the cost would be too high for them to have special labels on some of their products.”

Show me the label

In Missouri, State Senator Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis introduced Senate Bill 155 that would require the labeling of livestock and fish produced using bioengineering techniques.

The bill states, “Beginning Sept. 1, 2015, all meat and fish produced in this state that is genetically modified and sold in this state for human consumption shall bear on its label a statement indicating that it is genetically modified.”

The bill defines the term “genetically modified” to mean any animal or fish, including future offspring, produced using techniques such as recombinant DNA and RNA techniques, cell fusion, gene deletion or doubling, introduction of exogenous genetic material, alteration of the position of a gene, or similar procedure.

“While I understand that food production is an integral part of Missouri industry, I don’t feel the trend of biotechnology and genetically engineered foods is always apparent to the average citizen,” Ms. Nasheed said. “I am merely asking for clarity in the sale of certain genetically engineered foods to Missouri’s consumers.

“I don’t want to hinder any producer of genetically modified goods. However, I strongly feel that people have the right to know what they are putting into their bodies. By requiring a label indicating genetic modification in their meat selection, Missourians will have the choice to purchase the genetically engineered foods or not. Citizens have the right to be informed and to make their own decisions based on education and information.”

Ms. Nasheed pointed to legislation passed in Alaska in 2005 that required the labeling of bioengineered fish sold in the state as an example of such an initiative working.

“In 2005, Alaska adopted the first piece of legislation in the country relating to genetically engineered foods,” she said. “The bill was a proactive approach to Alaska’s fishing industry, aimed at protecting that industry’s future.”

Additional initiatives out west

In Washington state, proponents of Initiative-522, the Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, on Jan. 3 submitted to the state’s secretary of state the measure and petitions supporting it that contained 350,000 voter signatures. Once the signatures are validated, I-522, which was similar to Proposition 37 in California, will be presented to the legislature. The legislature, which earlier rejected similar bills requiring labeling of bioengineered foods, will be required to handle I-522 in one of three ways. The legislature may pass I-522 as currently written, which would void the need to put the measure before the state’s voters on the November 2013 election ballot. The legislature may reject the initiative or not act on it, in which case it would appear on the November 2013 ballot as written, or the legislature may pass an alternative measure and present both I-522 and the legislative alternative to the voters for their decision. If the measure is passed by the legislature or approved by the voters in November, it would take effect on July 1, 2015.

In Oregon, proponents of labeling bioengineered foods indicated they would conduct a petition drive to place the labeling issue on the state’s 2014 ballot. Oregon voters voted down such a proposal 10 years ago. And in Vermont, it was expected that bills requiring labeling of bioengineered foods soon will be introduced in both houses of the state’s legislature.

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