California’s 2012 food-labeling ballot measure, rejected by state voters, makes a return from the grave tomorrow with a public hearing in Sacramento. And another state initiative is in the offing in Colorado.
Since the narrow loss for the Golden State’s Proposition 37, which called for labeling foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), almost half the states have seen bills introduced containing similar language.
But moving a GMO-labeling bill through a statehouse has not been easy task. In Colorado, for example, a group calling itself Right to Know Colorado GMO, is avoiding the state’s legislature entirely. It has already filed Initiative 48. With court approval for their ballot title, the group’s next task is to obtain 86,105 valid voter signatures on petitions for submittal to the state by early August.
If the measure qualifies for the ballot, Colorado voters would decide whether food with GMOs sold in the state after July 1, 2016, will be required to have language on the label stating: “Produced With Genetic Engineering.”
Californians for GE Food Labeling — a coalition made up of environmental, foodie and consumer groups — is pitching Senate Bill 1381 as a “simpler, cleaner” version of the ill-fated Prop. 37.
Sponsored by state Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), SB 1381 is one of the few surviving state bills calling for labeling foods with GE ingredients. Evans has more time than most to work the bill as the California General Assembly does not adjourn until Nov. 30. Election-year adjournments for most state legislatures occur much sooner.
Last week, Hawaii House Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Jessica Wooley tried a legislative maneuver to keep a GMO-labeling bill alive. She gutted an unrelated agriculture bill and substituted language for the GMO-labeling requirements.
But her colleagues resisted the move when state officials questioned how the measure could be enforced. “From an enforcement standpoint, unless we have the entire genome of the plant, we won’t be able to test,” said Gary Gill, deputy director of the Hawaii Department of Health.
The bill with the substitute language was then “deferred indefinitely,” effecting killing GM labeling for at least another year in Hawaii. There might be time for another last-minute revival of the GMO bill as the Hawaii Legislature adjourns in early May, but that would happen only if the votes are certain.
State lawmakers in Vermont also go home in early May, and the GE-labeling bill passed by the House there last year still could become law if it can get through the Senate in time.
After a public hearing last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears was reported as having concerns about the bill’s dairy exemption and about how much it would cost the relatively small state to defend its action in federal court.
The Vermont Attorney General’s Office estimates that defending a challenge over federal preemption would cost state taxpayers upwards of $5 million if it lost and without much in the way of legal fee recovery.
Sears is concerned that the exemption of Vermont’s dairy industry could make it impossible to pass a judicial test. The Virginia Public Interest Research Group, which wrote H. 112, acknowledged that it left dairy out as a “strategic move.”
Sears said he wants to know if the state can defend a bill that “exempts dairy and not corn chips.”
Amendments to deal with funding the inevitable court challenge and removing the dairy exemption were being advanced in Montpelier to get the Judiciary Committee to move the bill to the Senate floor.
Meanwhile, Vermont’s Senate Judiciary Committee has taken no action on S. 289, a bill that would make owners of genetically engineered seed responsible for its spread to other property.
Word has also gone out in Florida that SB 558, assigned to the Senate Agriculture Committee, will not be heard this session. The bill, which would require raw agricultural commodities found by the legislature to be cultivated in GE form to be labeled, has not received much attention. Lawmakers are scheduled to leave Tallahassee on May 2.
Also not moving is Missouri’s SB 533, which calls for labeling all GE meat and fish sold in the state after Sept. 1, 2016. The Missouri General Assembly does not adjourn until May 30, but SB 533 has been stuck in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources.
The GE labeling bill in Rhode Island, HB 7042, appear to be dead, having been held in committee for “further study.”
The Washington Legislature left Olympia without taking action on HB 2143, which would have added another layer of prohibitions over raising genetically modified finfish. At a public hearing in January, the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources heard industry testimony to that effect that the existing ban was sufficient. A spokesman for Puget Sound’s 30-year-old farmed Atlantic salmon business says it has no interest in raising any GM fish because customers are not interested in buying them.
Washington state voters last year also narrowly rejected a GM-labeling bill. Connecticut has adopted a GM-labeling bill, but it is contingent on surrounding states passing similar measures.