By Daniela Altimari,
HARTFORD — Activists pressing for a state law requiring labels on food with genetically modified ingredients are disappointed and angry that the House of Representatives weakened a bill approved by the Senate earlier this week.
"It's very clear that Gov. Malloy and Speaker Sharkey did not want this,'' said Tara Cook-Littman of Fairfield, who founded GMO Free Connecticut. "They put special interests in front of the rights of their citizens."
Early Friday, the House passed a bill that would mandate labels on foods with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. But the law would only take effect if certain conditions are met: five other states with an aggregate population of 25 million people must pass similar legislation, and two of those states must be New Jersey, New York or another state that borders Connecticut.
That's a far higher bar than the one set by the Senate version of the labeling bill. That measure, which cleared the Senate on Tuesday, would have required three nearby states to trigger Connecticut's labeling requirement. If no other states adopted such a law by 2016, Connecticut's law would take effect anyway, under the Senate's proposal.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had both expressed reservations about the Senate bill and the impact a GMO labeling mandate could have on Connecticut businesses.
"We think the [House] bill in its current form represents a reasonable compromise,'' said Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba.
But Adam Joseph, spokesman for the Senate Democratic caucus, said "the bill passed by the House is not a compromise bill; it is a compromised bill."
Malloy, speaking to reporters Friday morning, said the House bill balances the needs of food manufacturers with a consumer's right to know what's in their food.
"If we did it by ourselves, then we'd be putting ourselves in a situation where manufacturers of food stuffs required to label for one state would increase their costs … that would be passed on to consumers,'' Malloy said. "In some cases … you'd have a number of products that would become unavailable in Connecticut because the mass producers would refuse to relabel for one state alone."
Malloy said Connecticut's legislation could spur other states in the region to pass their own labeling laws.
"Is the goal to implement the bill in one state or to move the nation forward?'' he asked. "I really think this is a national movement to have the United States join the rest of the industrialized world in doing this."
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.
The European Union already requires food with GMOs to be labeled, while some nations, including France, Switzerland and Peru, have banned such ingredients altogether.
Grassroots activists have been pressing for a labeling bill in Connecticut, and this year they appeared to have momentum. On Tuesday, a few hours before the Senate vote, the activists held a press conference at the Capitol with several lawmakers, including Senate President Don Williams and Minority Leader John McKinney.
Now Senate leaders are evaluating the options for passing "an effective GMO labeling law" before the legislative session ends June 5, Joseph said.
Activists such as Cook-Littman are urging the Senate not to approve the House bill.
"We understand this is a big fight against very large powers,'' she said. "The bill the House passed really gets us nowhere. It is designed to be a road block, and the trigger they put in is so steep that it's uncertain the bill would ever go into effect.''
Despite the loss, Cook-Littman said she is confident that foods with genetically modified ingredients will eventually be required to carry a label.
"The train has left the station and Americans will get the transparency in their food system that they're looking for,'' she said. "Connecticut [lawmakers] had an opportunity to lead the way and be an example to the nation. Instead, they acted like cowards."