PORTLAND, MAINE >> Supporters of a Maine law called for rules for labeling foods that contain genetically modified ingredients say they are let down by federal legislation.
The U.S. Senate bill, passed last week, would compel companies to disclose when foods contain genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs, via a text label, a symbol or an electronic code that is readable by a smartphone. The bill, which pre-empts Maine's law, passed the U.S. House on Thursday.
Maine crafted its law in January 2014 to require GMO labels if five contiguous states, including Maine, pass labeling laws. Supporters of Maine's law said it is stronger than the federal standard, which they said fails to hold companies who don't comply accountable.
"This definitely does not line up with what we planned for the state," said Heather Spalding, deputy director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which has pushed for GMO labeling for years. "The more they try to hide and obfuscate, the angrier the public is going to be."
Supporters of the federal standard include members of the food industry who have long opposed GMO labeling as well as some groups that have called for it, such as the Organic Trade Association. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Agriculture Committee, has said the rules will provide consumers with more information about safe products.
Roberts brokered the compromise in part to pre-empt the possibility of a patchwork of state laws regarding genetic engineering and food. Vermont's law, the first in the nation, went into effect on July 1.
The federal law also pre-empts a drive in the Maine statehouse to remove the trigger provision that requires adjacent states to also pass their own laws. Connecticut has a law similar in place.
Maine's U.S. senators, independent Angus King and Republican Susan Collins, voted against the Senate bill, as did Vermont's senators, independent Bernie Sanders and Democrat Patrick Leahy. Maine Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree also voted against it in the House.
But Maine state Sen. Peter Edgecomb, a Republican who grew up on a farm, said a uniform federal law could ultimately benefit the public by preventing the cost of a patchwork of labeling laws from being passed to consumers.
"And this is what we heard from grocers, and many who sold food," said Edgecomb, who sits on a legislative agriculture committee.
Edgecomb also cited the overwhelming scientific consensus that genetically modified food products that are currently on the market are safe to eat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will have two years to write the rules once President Barack Obama signs the bill into law. Obama has indicated he will sign it.