HARTFORD, Conn. — Consumers at Connecticut grocery stores would be able to know if genetically engineered foods are in the merchandise mix under a bill state lawmakers are considering to require the labeling of such foods.
Neither the federal government nor any state currently has a labeling requirement that applies to all genetically modified foods. Connecticut is among nearly 20 states considering a labeling mandate amid health concerns that supporters of the legislation have raised about such foods.
Connecticut's legislation would require clear labeling on any food sold in the state that is completely or partially produced with genetic engineering.
Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, said he introduced the legislation due to public concern over the issue. Roy co-chairs the state Environment Committee, which heard from supporters and opponents of the bill at a hearing Wednesday.
Roy said his bill has gained bipartisan support, and he expects the committee to pass it, although its fate after is unclear.
"We're not taking a stance on whether GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are good or bad," said Roy. "What we're saying is that we have a right to know what we're putting in our bodies."
Proponents of the legislation say that genetically engineered foods pose allergy and other health risks and that the labels will increase safety for consumers.
Analiese Paik, who runs the Fairfield Green Food Guide website and testified in favor of the labels, said that the Food and Drug Administration has yet to produce a scientific study on whether or not genetically modified foods are safe.
Paik pointed to a recent Canadian study that found toxins from genetically engineered corn circulating in the bloodstream of women.
"The burden of proof is on the FDA to prove that it's safe," she said.
U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman R. Andre Bell, said the USDA, FDA and Environmental Protection Agency regulate genetically engineered crops to ensure they are safe to eat and grow.
Opponents of the proposed legislation, including grocery stores and farmers, say they disagree with Paik's claims and argue that genetically engineered food has been long-studied and is proven to be safe.
Brian Kennedy, a spokesman from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said in a statement that "a special declaration on the food label would...not provide any additional useful information."
FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey said that genetically modified foods, as a class, pose no greater health risks than traditional foods. She said that genetically modified crops must meet regulatory standards and may undergo a voluntary consultation to ensure they are safe.
DeLancey said that while there are currently no genetically modified animal-based products on the market, they undergo substantial testing to ensure they are safe, as well.
She said the FDA has the authority to label products only when there is a material difference affecting things like nutritional values.
Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, said that adding labels to genetically engineered foods would be costly for farmers and complicate selling products over state lines. He said that organic and GMO-free certified farmers currently have the option to label their products as such, making the bill's mandatory label proposal redundant.
While the legislation looks to add labels, it does not require genetically engineered ingredients to be listed or identified. Additionally, the label would not be placed on foods from animals that were fed genetically engineered crops or fast food.
Under the proposed legislation, genetically engineered foods include any food that is unnaturally produced by altering genetic material.
Growing genetically engineered crops is attractive to farmers because they are modified to resist insects and tolerate herbicides. According to USDA data, the growth of genetically engineered crops has increased tremendously since their commercial introduction in 1996.
Between 1996 and 2011, growth rates for genetically engineered soybeans that are herbicide tolerant rose from less than 10 to 94 percent. Likewise, the rates for genetically engineered cotton and corn have risen around 70 percent across the board.
In recent years, many states have pushed to require clear labeling of genetically engineered products. Earlier this month, a California bill calling for labeling of genetically engineered salmon narrowly failed to pass a committee vote.
Connecticut is among 18 states that are considering labeling requirements for genetically modified foods, said Scott Hendrick, a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures. He said Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire are among surrounding states that are currently considering similar legislation.
Although no states require all genetically engineered food to be labeled, Alaska has a law requiring the labeling of genetically engineered fish, Hendrick said.
At the federal level, Congress is reviewing legislation in both the House of Representatives and Senate requiring labels on genetically engineered fish. The House is also reviewing legislation that calls for mandatory labeling of all genetically modified foods.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office is reviewing the legislation, his spokesman, Andrew Doba, said.