Label me: State becomes first in nation to pass GMO labeling law

Mysteries might be appealing to those seeking entertainment, but for those who want to know what’s in their food, uncertainties are a hindrance that should be avoided.

With that in mind, the Connecticut General Assembly has become the first state legislature in the country to pass a law requiring the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMO.

Advocates and lawmakers hailed the legislation as a triumph for citizens concerned about their health and what they’re eating. Fairfield resident Tara Cook-Littman founded GMO Free CT to advocate for labeling laws and said that she was grateful the state House of Representatives, state Senate and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reached an agreement on the law.

The law “is historic and Connecticut will now set the standard for states around the country to follow,” Cook-Littman said.

Dependent on action by other states

The law, however, comes with several caveats that must happen before GMO labeling becomes a requirement in the Nutmeg State. Four other Northeastern states need to pass similar labeling laws, and one of those states needs to border Connecticut. The combined population of these states needs to be at least 20 million.

These “trigger clauses” were initially proposed with more demanding requirements by the House, but were later softened as legislators reached a compromise.

Cook-Littman said she doesn’t think this will prevent the law from taking effect, as state legislatures in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania all have similar labeling bills on the table or are slated to discuss in upcoming sessions.

New York’s bill, however, was defeated in committee on Monday. California voters shot down a labeling bill late last year.

Labeling would become law on Oct. 1 of the year that four states also enact similar laws. Malloy said the bill “strikes an important balance by ensuring the consumers’ right to know what is in their food while shielding our small businesses from liability that could leave them at a competitive disadvantage.”

Making ‘informed, healthy choices’

State Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams said the bipartisan agreement means that Connecticut families will have “all the information they need to make informed, healthy choices when feeding their families.”

“There is mounting scientific evidence that genetically modified foods are harmful to our health,” Williams, a Democrat from eastern Connecticut, said in a press release.

State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney echoed his colleague.

“This law doesn’t ban, or restrict, or tax anything,” the Fairfield Republican stated in a press release. “It simply lets moms and dads know what’s in the food they’re buying for their children ... I’m pleased Connecticut is a pioneer in passing this common-sense legislation. I urge Washington [to] follow our lead.”

Some exclusions

The law excludes alcohol from being labeled, along with food bought at farmers markets and unpacked foods intended for immediate consumption. It also prevents GMO foods from being labeled as “natural.”

In her testimony at the public hearing for the bill, Cook-Littman said one of the reasons she supports labeling is because GMO products are in majority of processed foods and appear under a variety of labels, such as lecithin, xanthum gum, maltodextrin and others.

“As you can see, it can be extremely difficult to identify GMOs and trying to educate someone on avoiding them,” she told lawmakers.

Corn, canola, soybeans and cotton

The majority of GMO crops in the United States are corn, canola, soybeans and cotton, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2012, 94% of cotton, 93% of soybeans and 88% of corn planted in the United States were genetically modified. The United States is also the largest exporter of GMO crops in the world, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Other genetically modified crops approved for human consumption in the United States include potato, tomato, wheat, squash, plum, sugar beet, radicchio, papaya, flax, creeping bent grass, alfalfa and cantaloupe.

The new law does not specify if these specific items, if purchased in the produce section, would need to be labeled as genetically modified. The law would exempt most foods that are unpackaged and ready to eat from being labeled, and applies mostly to packaged and processed foods.

The FDA does not require biotech companies that make GMO foods, such as agri-business giant Monsanto, to register with the FDA, but instead recommends developers consult with the agency during development of genetic strains.

Fish genes in a tomato

While farmers have bred crops for centuries, the techniques used in genetic engineering often use organisms unrelated to the crop being altered. In the 1990s, the company DNA Plant Technology used fish genes from a flounder to develop a tomato that was resistant to freezing. However, the tomato was never marketed commercially.

“Genetic engineers can pull a desired gene from virtually any living organism and insert it into virtually any other organism,” wrote Jennifer Ackerman for National Geographic in 2002. “They can put a rat gene into lettuce to make a plant that produces vitamin C or splice genes from the cecropia moth into apple plants, offering protection from fire blight, a bacterial disease that damages apples and pears.”

Most plants are engineered to resist insects and diseases, delay ripening, reduce water needs and increase yields. However, 43% of the GMO crops listed by the FDA are designed solely to tolerate pesticides.

In many cases, the crops are engineered to tolerate glyphosphate, which Monsanto markets under the trade name Roundup. The company produces the seeds that are “Roundup ready” and also produces Roundup.

Controversy with impact on humans

While many studies show GMO products have no adverse health or environmental effects, emerging evidence shows that DNA from generically altered foods could actually invade the DNA of the person consuming it.

In 2004, John Heritage, a microbiologist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology that microbes found in the human digestive tract are capable of acquiring and harboring DNA sequences from genetically modified plants.

“This finding raises important questions for those charged with risk assessment of transgenic plants destined for food use,” Heritage wrote.

In 2011, a Chinese study published in the journal Cell Research showed that micro ribonucleic acid, or miRNA, from GMO rice was found in the blood and organs of people who ate the rice.

Advocate wants more independent studies

Dave Murphy, founder of Food Democracy Now, an organization of more than 650,000 people concerned with GMO foods, lauded the Connecticut legislation but also called for more independent studies to determine the safety of genetically altered foods.

“We want President Obama top sign a federal labeling bill into law within the next 12 months,” Murphy told Hersam Acorn Newspapers.

While on the campaign trail in 2007, Obama appeared to support labeling when he said, should he be elected, “We’ll let folks know whether their food is genetically modified because Americans should know what their buying.”

The FDA offers voluntary guidelines for labeling, but it is not mandatory. All GMO foods are labeled in Europe, even if the end product used was not altered but was the product of another type of alteration.

Decision by Whole Foods

Some companies and retailers have taken matters into their own hands. Whole Foods Market announced this March that all products in its American and Canadian stores that contain GMOs must be labeled within five years.

“We are putting a stake in the ground on GMO labeling to support the consumer’s right to know,” said Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, in a press release.

Fast-growing salmon

Some GMO projects appear like something out of science fiction, as researchers experiment with genetically modified animals. AquaBounty Technologies is working on developing a modified Chinook salmon called AquAdvantage that grows twice as fast as natural salmon, according to the company.

Fishermen, lawmakers and food producers formed a coalition along with 39 lawmakers claiming the genetically altered salmon might threaten their livelihoods by spreading unease about eating salmon, as well as create an unfair advantage by allowing GMO salmon to be harvested twice as fast as natural salmon.

The FDA is slated to approve the salmon after public comment ended in May this year. The federal agency released a report claiming the GMO fish would have “no significant impact” on the “human environment.”

Concerns grew recently when unapproved GMO wheat developed by Monsanto was discovered growing in Oregon. A shipment of processed wheat from the United States was halted by Japanese authorities on Monday who have no way of testing the wheat to determine if it’s genetically modified.

The USDA and Monsanto are investigating the incident.

‘Openness and transparency is best’

In some cases, GMO foods have been shown to have health benefits. Some modified corn has low levels of fumonisins, a toxin made by fungi found on certain insects that has been linked to cancer in animals. Natural corn has higher levels of the carcinogen as it is more prone to insect damage, according to reports.

Nevertheless, advocates celebrated en masse over the weekend when Connecticut took the first step toward GMO transparency.

“The average American may not pay attention to every label,” said advocate Murphy, who lives in Iowa. “They have kosher and halal labels — for some people it means a lot. In our democracy, openness and transparency is the best.”

A spokesperson for Monsanto declined to comment for this story, and instead advised contacting the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Reach David DesRoches of Hersam Acorn Newspapers at