HARTFORD — A bill that would require food made with genetically modified organisms to carry labels cleared the state Senate late Tuesday night.
The Senate's approval, on a 35-1 vote, gives new energy to a measure that had strong grassroots backing but appeared stalled at the Capitol this year. But its prospects in the House of Representatives are murkier.
"I'm concerned about our state going out on its own on this and the potential economic disadvantage that could cause,'' House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said. "I would like to see us be part of a compact with some other states, which would hopefully include one of the bigger states such as New York."
Sharkey said he is taking a vote count to see if there is sufficient backing for the bill in his chamber.
Even if the bill passes the House and is signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, it would not take effect until at least three other states pass similar legislation. GMO labeling legislation is pending in more than a dozen states.
Some food would be exempt from the labeling mandate: food served or sold in a restaurant for immediate consumption, as well as alcoholic beverages and farm products sold at farmer's markets, roadside stands and pick-your-own farms.
Still, supporters hailed the bill as a victory for consumers.
"We're not banning anything, we're not restricting anything, we're not taxing anything," Senate Republican leader John McKinney said at a press conference on the Capitol steps several hours before the vote. "We're just saying let moms and dads know what's in the food their buying for their young kids. … That's not a lot to ask."
Genetically altered ingredients are found in many processed foods. Through gene-splicing and other techniques, farmers have modified crops to better resist diseases. The bioscience industry, food makers and the federal government say such foods are safe, but activists worried about long-term health consequences have led the push for labels.
"This is a public health issue," Senate President Donald Williams said during the debate. "The step that we are requesting, the mere labeling of food, is a very modest step … but it is a very important one so consumers can take action to protect their health and the health of their children."
The bioscience industry says GMOs are safe and vows to fight labeling laws.
"There's a lot of emotion that's surrounding this bill right now," said Paul Pescatello, a board member of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, which advocates on behalf of pharmaceutical companies, research institutions and agriculture concerns in the state. "There's a lot of science out there about GMO foods and GMO crops, and people should look at the science, they should read the science, they should understand the science and then … make a decision."
Requiring labels on GMO foods could raise constitutional issues around free speech, Pescatello said. "There's an implication that there's something wrong with GMO foods, that there's sort of a scarlet letter attached to it," he said.
But proponents of the labeling law say it allows consumers to make up their own minds. Some members of Congress are pushing for federal legislation and in March, Whole Foods Market, the giant supermarket chain, announced it will require all GMO foods sold in its stores to be labeled by 2018.
Malloy sees both sides, his spokesman said. "Those that favor the labeling provision are passionate in their pursuit — the governor has heard and appreciates their concerns," Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba said.
"Those concerns must be balanced with the needs of Connecticut's farmers and small businesses, not to mention working families concerned about their grocery bill. Connecticut is part of a national and global economy, and any solution must recognize that fact. The governor believes that finding the right balance is essential."
Originally published: The Hartford Courant.