N.H. Panel: Reject GMO Labeling Bill

Concord — A House committee Thursday dealt a blow to the effort to require special labels on food sold in New Hampshire if it’s the product of genetic engineering.

On a 12-8 vote, the House Environment and Agriculture Committee recommended the full House kill a bill that would require food products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, to be labeled as such.

Critics said the bill could be expensive to enforce, might be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional and addresses an issue that’s more properly handled by the federal government.

Some committee members also said claims by GMO skeptics that such products carry significant health risks may be overblown.

“I think that for New Hampshire to mandate labeling at this point in time is a rush to judgment. . . . Scientists will tell you that there has been no hard, fast evidence that genetically engineered products are causing the diseases and allergies and cancers that we’re afraid of,” said Rep. Jane Johnson, a Swanzey Republican. “I’m not in support of this bill. I think that we need to trust the consumer to be educated and make their own choices.”

Labeling bills or outright bans on foods that contain GMOs were introduced this year in nearly half the states, according to the Center for Food Safety, an anti-GMO advocacy group.

Both Maine and Connecticut passed laws this year requiring GMO labeling, though neither will go into effect until additional states do the same. Voters in Washington state this week rejected a referendum proposal that would have mandated GMO labeling, as California voters did last year.

In New Hampshire, a bill that would have studied GMO labeling was killed by the House last year. But this year, Rep. Maureen Mann, a Deerfield Democrat, introduced a new bill that would require labels on food products “if such food is, or may have been, entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering.”

The committee voted back in February to retain the bill for more work, and lawmakers have been studying the issue since the spring. The legislation has drawn considerable interest from local and national advocacy groups, with many arguing in favor of the labeling requirement.

An amendment was offered yesterday that supporters said would improve the bill. Among other things, it would have created an exemption for restaurants and required that at least four other states in the northeastern United States adopt similar laws before the New Hampshire law would take effect.

Rep. Lisa Whittemore, a Londonderry Democrat, said lawmakers should represent “the will of the people,” and that she was “personally very moved and impressed by the literally hundreds of people who contacted me.”

The overwhelming majority, she said, supported putting labels on products that are genetically engineered.

“When a consumer picks up a tomato that’s been sprayed with pesticide, they can go home and they can wash that off,” Whittemore said. “When they pick up a tomato that has been genetically altered so that the genes, the actual structure of that organism has been mutated by, for example, goat genes . . . there is no way that a parent with a child who has allergies, or an individual who’s having health problems, is able to fix that. There’s no way that they can take personal responsibility and alter the nature of that food.”

But critics such as Rep. Robert Haefner, a Hudson Republican, said the bill could carry a “skull-and-crossbones effect,” with “Genetically Engineered” labels serving as de facto warning labels that stigmatize food containing GMOs. He said he thinks the bill would be challenged in court, successfully, on several grounds including violating the Constitution’s protection for freedom of speech.

Plus, Haefner said, “I think it is a federal issue. It is not a state issue.”

After two hours of debate, the committee voted, 12-8, to reject the amendment, then voted by the same margin to recommend the full House kill the bill.

Three Democrats and nine Republicans voted against the bill, while eight Democrats supported it.

The legislation will go to the full House in January for a floor vote, along with other bills that were retained by various committees this year for additional work.