AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine food retailers would have to put special labels on products that contain genetically modified ingredients, under a measure advanced by the House on Tuesday.
Maine residents have the right to know whether they're eating foods that have been genetically modified, which they say can lead to potential health risks, supporters of the bill say.
"I just like to know what I'm eating," said Rep. Dianne Russell, D-Portland. "Is a tomato a tomato? Is corn, corn? Right now we don't know the answer to that."
The bill, which has bipartisan support, was sent to the Senate.
Genetically modified food is grown from seeds specially engineered to resist pesticides or produce extra nutrients. The Maine Grocers Association, which opposes the measure, says genetically modified foods are safe and that labeling the products will be costly and burdensome for the farmers and grocers.
"Mandatory state labeling of products is unnecessary public policy, expensive for Maine farmers, processers and manufactures, grocers and retailers, and the state to implement and enforce," said Shelley Doak, the group's executive director, in an April hearing.
An amendment added Tuesday requires that five contiguous states, including Maine, pass similar laws before the state's law goes into effect.
Lawmakers say that requirement will give the law a better chance of success by allowing multiple states to share the costs of a possible legal challenge from the biotech industry while also sending a message to the U.S. government to enact a federal law.
Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said that because the federal government has failed to regulate genetically modified foods, it is up to the states to act.
"This bill would be a risk management strategy to uncertainty," he said. "It would allow the people of the country and the people of the state to decide if they want to continue to be lab rats in this experiment."
Similar legislation is being considered in other states, including Vermont. Connecticut recently passed a measure requiring the labeling of genetically modified food products, but only after neighboring states put similar laws in place.
But while Maine would be one of the first states to put such a law in place, lawmakers said the United States is actually far behind other countries when it comes to requiring such labels. Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, said the 67 countries require the labeling.
"By taking this move, we are actually becoming part of the mainstream," Treat said.