Maine Legislature Debates Labeling Genetically Engineered Foods
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"Your letters, emails and calls had I some impact," says MOFGA president Sharon Tisher regarding the decision of Maine’s Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation to recommend that genetically engineered foods be labeled. "Ag Committee co-chair John Nutting said he’d received ‘hundreds’ of letters and calls from consumers for labeling. He also noted, however, that it was a ‘high stakes’ issue, and that ‘never before’ had he seen more lobbyists—for biotech, the Department of Ag., Farm Bureau, etc., at a work session for an ag bill."
The bill, LD 713: An Act to Establish. Mandatory Labeling for Genetically Engineered Foods, was considered in this legislative session after both MOFGA and Nancy Oden tried to submit such bills, with respective legislators to sponsor them. Unknown to MOFGA and Oden, some pro-labeling legislators agreed among themselves to resubmit a bill that had failed in 1998 and to hash out variations in committee.
Rep. Martha Bagley of Machias, who had supported Oden’s original bill, introduced LD 713 at a public hearing before the Ag Committee on April 12, saying, ‘I’m not an expert on genetically engineered foods, but I firmly believe we have the right to know whether the food we eat has been engineered." Cosponsor Rep. Linda McKee of Wayne. said, "We are guinea pigs. Other countries are more cautious.,. Marketing runs what we eat, not safety. This is a right-to-know bill, first and foremost." She added that she is allergic to salicilates, which are in some cheesecakes, so she understands the need of the large number of allergic individuals to know what is in their food. "I urge you to go slowly, read as much as you possibly can. It’s not too late for Maine to say ‘No.’ People will say we can’t do it, it costs too much—but there are countries in the world that are saying ‘N"
In supporting the bill, Tisher also emphasized the problem of food allergies, which present the primary, driving force for labeling, she said, since 1 to 2% of the U.S. population suffers from true food allergies. "Because genes encode proteins, food obtained from organisms genetically engineered to express new genes will in most cases contain proteins that were not previously found in the food... Thus, it is entirely possible that future availability of genetically engineered foods could lead susceptible individuals to be allergic to foods they previously could safely. consume," she quoted from a 1996 report of Maine’s Commission to Study Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering. The Commission had hoped that its report "would help to nudge the FDA in the right direction— that we’d soon have a federal labeling requirement. But the FDA has been a stone wall when it comes to labeling, and there’s no indication that that will change," said Tisher.
She continued: "Since that report, new evidence of health risks have emerged, which decidedly tips the balance in favor of action now," and she gave Committee members copies of articles from Science and Nature magazines from Feb. 1999 suggesting that a diet of genetically engineered potatoes impaired the immune systems and internal organs of lab rats. She also pointed out that the New England Journal of Medicine unequivocally favored labeling, and that 81% of the U.S. public wants labeling, according to a survey reported in the Jan. 11, 1999, issue of Time Magazine.
Tisher presented a modified, "modest" bill that would require labeling of whole, unprocessed and minimally processed foods. If such a bill passed, she told the Committee, "We would be the first in the nation" to require labeling. This is do-able and would even benefit Maine farmers. Last year, 16 farmers grew soybeans in rotation with potatoes in Aroostook County. Many more are predicted for this year and the following. They command premium prices. Those soybeans have to be certified as not genetically engineered. This is the tip of the iceberg. If Maine farmers can sell products with a label, it will be a competitive gain in the market." She also said that if the federal government tried to tell Maine that it could not require labeling, this is wrong. "Since there are no statutes that govern genetic engineering labeling at the federal level, this is a non-issue. States can act on this issue."
Nancy Oden, representing CLEANME: Citizens for a Livable Environment said that the bill that came out of the Reviser’s Office was not what she and Rep. Bagley had asked for. "We wanted all genetically engineered foods labeled This bill is full of ways to get out of it. We would like the Committee to say: All genetically engineered food shall be labeled as such." Oden pointed out that organic farmers have no problem labeling their products. "We’re proud to label our food. It’s not hard to do."
When Rep. Ruel Cross of Dover-Foxcroft told Oden that he had received many letters from doctors, scientists and others opposing labeling and asked her, "Who am I to believe?" Oden responded, "Follow the money trail." Cross also challenged Oden by asking whether Maine produced enough organic potatoes to furnish McCain (a potato chip processor). "Of course not,’ Oden responded. "1 find California organic potatoes at Shop ‘n Save. I can’ find organic potatoes from Maine [there] because there are not enough. I think the legislature should say, ‘We know we can’t keep growing food this way. What if we subsidized farmers to change over to better ways to grow food?’ We could have all of the organic potatoes that McCain, or anyone else, wanted." Oden also read a letter from Dr. Robert Lodado of Dover-Foxaoft, who supported labeling.
Monrique Gotreau, a teacher from Bangor, said that she reads labels diligently, but that she could not find information about engineered ingredients on them. "If corporations were truly confident about their products, they wouldn’t mind labeling them," she said. She cited an editorial that had run in the Bangor Daily News that day, saying that engineered foods may be good or bad, but they should not be hidden; and she read a letter from a mother of five who could not attend the hearing but who finds shopping increasingly challenging because of the lack of choice presented. Likewise, Ruth Gabey of West Gardiner said that "corporations have gone too far in tampering with nature" and that "inadequately tested products" were on the market, while Hildie Lipson of Wayne told the Committee, "Not passing this bill would be a slap in the face of the consumer. Nothing about this bill could hurt the consumer." She argued that people who are vegetarians and who hold to religious dietary rules should be able to tell what is in their food.
After this first hour of testimony in favor of the bill, an hour was devoted to those who opposed it. Matt Standon of the Grocery Manufacturers of America said that the FDA ensures that these foods are safe; that genetic engineering is the equivalent of breeding by traditional methods; and that FDA regulates labeling. "Labeling could lead consumers to think that genetically engineered foods] are unsafe," he concluded.
Michael Vayda, a biotech researcher with the Univ. of Maine, said that he was speaking personally, as a molecular biologist, and not as a representative of the University. He said that the proposed labeling would provide no information on potential risks. "Listing of novel proteins might be more valuable to the consumer," he said, then added that since so many foods now on the market are transgenic, labeling would be meaningless. He suggested, instead, labeling foods that do not have engineered ingredients. He argued, too, that he believed labeling would increase the cost of food in Maine, and that the increased cost would be passed on to the consumer. Also, labeling may haven’ environmental and economic effects on growers in the state," he said, claiming that crops engineered to contain the Bt toxin can reduce pesticide use here. "If [growers] have to label, they may not want to grow them."
Vayda also promoted genetic engineering. There’s no reason to expect a greater health risk from genetically engineered foods than from those that are bred by traditional methods, he said, adding that traditional breeding adds many genes in thousands of combinations, while engineering introduces only a few genes with known characteristics. He said that crops with more vita min E, longer shelf life, and resistance to disease and insects "are all good things."
Rep. Roslta Gagne of Buckfield said that she found Vayda’s testimony "scary;" that genetic engineering "Is not really natural, but you’re insinuating it is. What’s really scary is pesticides. If genetically engineered potatoes resist a living creature, and [these potatoes] will then be inside me... eventually It will do something inside me. You are changing the cosmos. I find this bill not harmful at all. I would not mind paying an extra penny or two" for labeled food. She took Vayda that she recognized what a "thrill" it was for him to be "part of that future destiny" that genetic engineering represents, but asked him again why he didn’t think engineered foods should hi labeled. Vayda responded to her comment about consuming Bt-potatoes, saying that the acidic human gut breaks down the protein (the toxin) in Bt, but that the insect gut is alkaline, and so does not break it down. When Sen. John Nutting, of Androscoggin asked Vayda whether be would support a bill that required more specific labels, Vayda said, "I think that would be a step in the right direction."
Scott Beal of the National Food Processors Association told the Committee that If something should be labeled, the Association supported It "when scientifically justified," and he gave the example of pasteurization of juices. He Introduced the Association’s scientist, Dr. Jet Bark, who told the Committee that viruses that were engineered Into plants would not get into the environment because "virus resistant potatoes don’t have the whole virus, just three individual proteinaceous components. The cell Is tricked Into thinking It has a virus, but It doesn’t really. It’s a non-reproducing type of virus." Regarding marker genes, he said that the FDA has put-out guidelines regarding "the proper way to use" them, and that the Industry used "antibiotics that have no clinical significance to human and animal health." Barek brought up a study by Dr. Arpad Pusztal of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, which suggested that rats’ internal organs and immune systems were damaged when the rats at engineered potatoes. Barek said that a committee reviewing Pusztai’s work claimed that the results could not be verified, and that Pusztai was dismissed from the Institute. He added that when a Brazil nut protein that was engineered into a crop was found to be allergenic, "the industry recognized the allergenicity."
Potato grower Neil Crane of Exeter, who sells his crop primarily to FritoLay (which takes crops from 11 to 12% of the Maine potato acreage), said that he used Bt-potatoes in part of his production for the last four years. He said that he would not be able to afford to build storage bins to separate engineered from non-engineered potatoes if labeling were required. Also, FritoLay would not support labeling and would get its potatoes elsewhere if Maine passed LD 713. He added about FritoLay: "They believe In this technology."
Michael Corey, Executive Director of the Maine Potato Board, said that he sees "a whole series of problems" with labeling. It would be required In grocery stores but not in restaurants, for example. He added that the FDA has thoroughly studied Bt products, and that Bt was widely used throughout the organi4 community. "The FDA has said several times that they see no need to put a label on" such foods, he said. "You are asking people In Maine to do something nobody else In the country Is doing. How are we going to regulate what’s coming Into Maine from Idaho or any other state?"
When asked by Sen. Leo Kieffer of Aroostook whether McCains had a ban on engineered potatoes, Corey said, "Not to my knowledge. They lifted the ban two years ago." He added, however, that the company has "some concerns because of their export market to Europe."
David Popp, who farms In Dresden, opposed LI) 713 because he saw It as unworkable." He said that engineered crops could be used to reduce pesticide applications and to feed an Increasing population.
Returning the floor to proponents of the bill, the Committee heard from Roger Perry of Farmington, a retired physician and pharmacist. He explained that genetic engineering was not the same as traditional breeding, because natural barriers to crossing were no longer In place. Engineering "can produce novel organisms that are not found In nature. This Is a very young technology. It’s still in Its Infancy. It cannot predict where a gene will end u~ In a genome. That’s why they have to put market genes in." He added that many traits are not expressed by single genes, and that environmental characteristics, both within and outside of cells, can affect gene expression.
Responding to statements that the FDA ensured the safety of the food supply’ Perry said that most engineered crops are not under any regulation, and for those that axe, only summaries of data must be submitted to the agency. Relating this industry to the drug industry, be said that annually, 2.2 million people are afflicted by adverse drug reactions, and that in 1998, three drugs had to be recalled and taken off the market, even though they had previously been FDA-approved. "Fast-track approval has come by pressure from Industry groups," he said. "The same can happen with genetically engineered foods." He worries about antibiotic resistance marker genes, since "we are now using fifth and sixth generations of antibiotics because of resistance."
He said that Instigating new genetic pathways "may reactivate unused pathways in plants," changing more than the target characteristic, and that engineering certain traits into or out of crop plants may have unforeseen consequences. He gave the example of caffeine in coffee beans, which kills a fungus that grows on the beans. A genetically engineered, decaffeinated bean may support the growth of that fungus, which is very toxic to humans. Also, contrary to opponents’ statements, he also said that "not all toxins are deactivated in the human gut."
Merle Thompson, President of the Board of the Rising Tide Food Co-op in Damariscotta, said: "People in our store don’t want to know if a specific gene is in food. They want to know if Monsanto’s footprint is on it."
Pain Prodan of Canaan cited her opposition to monoculture farming, which biotech encourages; and her family history of allergies. She no longer purchases canola oil, potato products, soy products, or products with enzymes, She avoids most cheeses, although "European cheeses are pretty good." She’s changed brands, no longer buying tuna with soy protein added and no longer buying FritoLay products. "Corporations say trust us," she said. "Do I really have to trust Monsanto? I hope not!" She said she is unable to trust a corporation that gave us PCBs, Agent Orange, and Is a potentially responsible party In 93 Superfund Cleanup sites.
Jean Hay pointed out that the Bt toxin Is present In unnaturally high concentrations In engineered potatoes and that the potential reaction to Bt ingestion has not been studied. "Why would any farmer want to grow a food crop that he can't label because the consumer won’t want it?" she asked. "This label will be a place to start," she said, suggesting that it be combined with a trademark, such as NewLeaf. Regarding antibiotic resistance marker genes, she asked, "How do we know they are clinically insignificant?"
During my testimony, I cited Harry S Truman’s words that secrecy and a free democratic government don’t mix. I told the "rest of the story" that Dr. Jeff Barek of the National Food Processors Assoc. had omitted In his testimony: i.e., that a panel of International scientists, Independent of the Rowett Research Institute (which receives considerable funding from Monsanto), said that Dr. Pusztal’s research conclusions were justified, and that the panel recommended a five year moratorium on the sale of genetically engineered foods In Great Britain. I told about the deaths of 37 people and permanent disabilities of 1500 who had taken an engineered form of L-tryptophan. In 1989, and about a news article reporting Increased rates of allergies to soy In Great Britain last year.
I talked about the many bans, moratoriums and labeling requirements that have been instigated In Europe and other countries, such as labeling at Sainsbury’s, the second largest supermarket in Great Britain, and at rival chains Tesco, Safeway and others. I also mentioned that Canada lost $300 to $400 million in canola sales last year because the Canadian government didn’t require labeling; and the drop In exports of corn from the United States to Europe last year, down from 70 million bushels in 1997 to 3 million in ‘98—because It wasn’t labeled as nonengineered. Furthermore, I provided a list of employees who had been through the "revolving door" between Monsanto and the FDA and other offices In the Clinton administration.
Russ Libby, Executive Director of MOFGA, stated that the legislature recently upheld Gov. King’s veto concerning removing prices on gas pumps. "If we have the right to know gas prices, we should know what we’re eating,". said Libby. He added that companies don’t want to segregate engineered foods from nonengineered, but that segregating is done routinely throughout every step of the food supply. Also, he pointed out that Sainsbury owns Shaws supermarkets. "They’re doing it [labeling] in the UK, but not here," he said.
Annya Tisher, a junior from John Bapst Memorial High School In Bangor, said that honesty is one of the most important ethical issues, and that If companies really believed In their products, they would be labeling them.
Beedy Parker of Camden argued that genes are highly unpredictable and that each consumer Is responds differently to substances. "We don’t know the long term effects to individuals and populations eating large quantifies, and we won’t for a long time, and If we don’t label, we’ll never know."
Will Bonsall, Director of the Scatterseed Project in Industry, Maine, noted that the arguments were "lining upon two sides," i.e., "those of us dressed like hippies and those of us dressed like Mormons," referring to the dark suits on the "anti" side of the room. "Just purely from a food Industry point of view," he continued, "I think this is an Incredibly pro-business bill. If I’m a businessman and I’m producing something I want to sell you, I want you to know everything possible about the (product]. Your confidence Is extremely important to me. That’s what a real businessperson says. Those who don’t want you to know—that’s not a businessman, that’s a crook. Even If this stuff Is fine, a heck of a lot of people are worried about It. Maine wants to produce food people will buy. We’ve got to address that."
As far as "jumping ahead of the rest of the country," Bonsall said that "Maine has already done that with its bottle bill, organic standards..." He cited our state motto, "Dirigo," "to lead," and said that "we have been very much a role model for others.. We’re going to be producing something people can trust."
Moving back to the opponents, Jon Olson of the Maine Farm Bureau joined those who said that labeling should be done on a national level. Mario Teisl of the University of Maine, who has done research on labeling and worked for the FDA, said that labeling would put a "major burden" on some processors; that a bill passed in California in the ‘8Os requiring labeling of foods that could cause cancer ended up requiring a label on "almost every food product sold there;" and that consumers can take in only three to five bits of information when making a decision, then they are overloaded and Ignore additional Information.
Tom Doak of the Maine Dept. of Agriculture said that the bill would be unenforceable; would hurt farmers; would be cumbersome for retailers and a burden on consumers. He reiterated that labeling should be done on a national level if it’s needed. "Like any new technology," said Doak, "it creates fear. It’s important not to overreact to it."
Christine Burke of the Maine Grocers’ Association said, "We are quickly coming to the point where we are going to end up with more labels than products," referring to labeling requirements for irradiation, pasteurization, etc. She favored a simpler labeling system: organic, transitional or conventional.
Cheryl Timberlake of the Biotechnology Association of Maine opposed the bill because It would threaten the "strong...biotech industry in the state."
The final round of proponents included Richard Rhames of Biddeford, a conventional farmer, who said that farmers had been urged for a long time to adopt new technologies that had made them "canaries in the coal mine." The argument in favor of these technologies was that they would "free [farmers] from the drudgery of farming. In fact," said Rhames, "It has—from drudgery and farming!" In response to the powerful push by industry and the university to adopt new technologies, he said, ‘Some of us feel a time-out might be a good thing. I wish we could stop talking about the ‘agricultural industry’ and start talking about farmers and eaters."
Nancy Ross, a Ph.D. candidate in nutrition at Tufts University and former Executive Director of MOFGA, argued with Mario Teisl’s testimony, saying that many studies had shown that consumers are not overloaded by additional information. "Giving people information about genetic engineering would help consumers make decisions."
Prentice Grassi, a farmer from Union, said that he had "not seen evidence that the technology will better the long-term welfare of my farm, my family or my community," while Polly Shyka, also of Union, said that reading labels has helped her keep her allergies under control.
William Bell of the New England Feed and Grain Council claimed to be testifying "neither for nor against" the bill. "Maine is no big deal," he said. "It’s so small, companies don’t need to supply" it. Rep. Wendy Pieh of Bremen asked, "You call that not taking a position?"
When W 713 was taken up at a work session on April 15, the Agriculture Committee initially voted 7-6, with Republicans and John Nutting (a Democrat) supporting a watered down "voluntary" labeling bill that would let people label their foods as "not genetically engineered" if they wanted. In fact, people already have the right to do this. Committee cochair Wendy Pieh and bill sponsor Martha Bagley supported a minority report for MOFGA’s amendment, which would require labeling of whole, unprocessed and minimally processed foods. After the work session however, Republican support for even voluntary labeling had withered In the face of strong opposition from lobbyists, reports Sharon Tisher, so Nutting switched to the Democrats’ side, turning the minority report into a majority report. "This is the first time a genetic engineering labeling bill has made it out of committee with a favorable vote" in Maine, says Tisher, although such bills have been introduced twice in the past. "Honesty in the marketplace Is the first step towards a dialogue about the pros and cons of this technology," she added.