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Massachusetts Rep. Ellen Story Seeks GMO Labels Amidst Growing Health Concerns

On the one hand, Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, says her constituents include scientists who insist there’s no health danger from eating genetically engineered foods in small quantities. On the other hand, plenty of her constituents are very concerned that genetically modified foods are dangerously toxic or at least that not enough is known about them.

Story, who has filed bills calling for labeling foods made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, told an Amherst hearing that “there may be much more to know about this than I know at this point. Taking it seriously, learning more about it and maybe putting the brakes on is probably a good idea.”

That was back in 2007, when Story’s first GMO labeling bill was one of the few efforts at legislative action in a state that is also home to a large biotechnology sector.

Today, the Legislature is weighing four bills — including one co-sponsored by Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange — on labeling GMOs in food. Some express doubts that Massachusetts will take action on the issue this year, joining with legislation in Connecticut and Maine. There is also legislation pending in Vermont. Story and others say they’ve seen a dramatic increase in the level of interest in taking action.

“Absolutely, there’s much more interest this year,” Story said after a Statehouse hearing that drew a packed gathering this month. “There are colleagues who are filing their own (GMO labeling) bills who I never would have expected to do so. I think it’s because there’s more publicity, more public awareness and more agitation on the part of people who are nervous about something that’s new enough, and potentially harmful, although I think the jury’s out on that.”

Story, who keeps in her Statehouse office an empty Skittles box labeled “This product contains genetically engineered ingredients” as an example of what her labeling legislation would require, explains, “It doesn’t take a stand on the merit or the demerits. It just says we should know what we’re buying, what we’re eating. It doesn’t say, ‘So don’t buy it.’”

Story, who has also introduced a bill that would require a similar label on genetically modified seeds, says there is plenty of lobbying taking place by the food industry, which argues that an informational label is tantamount to a warning.

Story, whose GMO labeling bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, has also been visited by some representatives of Mead Johnson, a manufacturer of baby formula, agreeing that there should be labels, but that it should come on a federal level.

While she won’t openly predict the odds of something passing this year, Story does say, “There’s a better chance this year than in preceding years, because there’s so much more buzz around.”
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