Food-Tampering Bills Blossom On State Agendas

Natural Foods Merchandiser: April 1997

MONTPELIER, Vt.--Four states have biotechnology-related bills on their agendas for the current session, signaling an interest in the issue by some legislators.

In Vermont, new legislation follows the repeal of a mandatory recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) labeling law, which, among other things, required retailers to place a "blue dot" on dairy products made from milk produced by cows given rBGH. That portion of the former law was declared unconstitutional last August, when a panel of judges said it violated milk producers' freedom of speech (see October NFM, page 6).

However, Vermont Sens. Cheryl Rivers and Elizabeth Ready recently introduced legislation (S.73), which continues the existing law that allows manufacturers to label products rBGH-free, but drops the mandatory labeling section. In addition, the new legislation requires farmers who use rBGH to notify milk handlers. "This improves verification of the rBGH-free claim," says Steven Heim, program director for Rural Vermont, a family-farming advocacy group based in Montpelier. "This bill is good because it continues to protect the consumer's right to know. But what is really needed is for all genetically engineered foods to be labeled." The first hearing on the bill, in the Vermont Senate Agriculture Committee, was scheduled for late February.

Similar legislation in Massachusetts was introduced by Lois Pines and is already in discussion in the Massachusetts Joint Natural Resources Committee. The bill, S.D. 1947, inserts a new section to the Inspection and Sale of Food law already on the books in that state, to require a label on dairy products notifying consumers that the milk was obtained from cows treated with any growth hormone. The label would read as follows: "This milk was produced by cows injected with synthetic BGH." This legislation also requires distributors of dairy products that may contain rBGH to keep records of all dairy transactions.

More sweeping biotechnology labeling is on the books for Nebraska and Maine. In those states, lawmakers are considering legislation that would require labeling of genetically engineered foods or food organisms. In Maine, Rep. Paul Chartrand introduced the bill, which asks manufacturers to include the words "genetically engineered," the source of the genetic material and the purpose of the genetic engineering on the label. According to the National Food Processors Association's State Legislative Update, the Maine bill would also ask retailers to post this information on a conspicuous sign and display genetically engineered foods separately.

Nebraska's bill, introduced by Sen. Jennie Robak, also requires labeling of all genetically engineered foods. At press time, it was in discussion in the Nebraska Agriculture Committee. "All the surveys have indicated that this is a good move for politicians," says Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Minnesota-based Pure Food Campaign. "We've seen studies that say 90 percent of all consumers want mandatory biotechnology labeling."

In the meantime, The New York Times reported recently that Novartis, a giant Swiss agribusiness company is preparing to advocate that all genetically engineered crops and foods made from them be clearly labeled.

--Emily Esterson


Organic Consumers Association
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Ronnie Cummins E-mail: alliance@mr.net    http://www.purefood.org

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