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Darien: Food Bill Loses its Bite

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – HB 5117, the bill being considered in the Connecticut State Legislature that would have required the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has been downgraded to what supporters now regard to be an ineffective piece of legislation. The provision that would have required labeling of all foods containing GMOs sold in the state was removed last Friday.

“Removing this provision left the bill absolutely meaningless,” says Tara Cook-Littman, a former New York City prosecutor and co-founder of Right to Know CT, a group dedicated to enacting legislation that would mandate labeling of all foods containing GMOs.

The bill would have been the first of its kind in the United States, according to Right to Know CT and other organizations trying to push for legislation, including the national non-profit, Just Label It. More than 40 other countries, however, including all European Union members, require labeling of foods containing GMOs, according to both groups.

As for who killed Connecticut’s bill, there is some disagreement. Supporters such as Cook-Littman accuse Governor Dannel Malloy of eleventh hour negotiations that resulted in the changes to the bill. “You have to look behind the scenes to understand what happened here,” says Cook-Littman. “If this bill had gotten in front of the house, it would have passed. But the governor and his lawyers ripped out the section that mattered, effectively usurping legislative power and the will of the people.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office decided not to answer any questions for this article, but instead redirected inquiries to a blog post, which indicates the legislature was responsible for the change.

Rep. Richard Roy, lead sponsor of the bill and co-chair of the General Assembly’s Environment Committee, indicated the governor's office was involved in the decision in his statement to the Fairfield Green Food Guide, “The labeling provision was eliminated from the bill due to fears that it opened the state up to a lawsuit. The attorneys for the leadership and governor’s office felt that the constitutional rights of Monsanto gave them the power to successfully sue the state."

According to Analiese Paik, founder of the Fairfield Green Food Guide and co-founder of Right to Know CT, “Eighty-five percent of House Representatives said they would support the bill with the labeling provision intact in a pre-vote tally. We know the change was not made because of a lack of support. But, the perceived threat of a lawsuit by biotech giant Monsanto overshadowed all of that.”

The fear of a lawsuit by GMO manufacturing agri-giant Monsanto--the self-admitted manufacturer of Agent Orange, used in herbicidal warfare by the United States military during the Vietnam war—against a state is not without precedent. Vermont is considering a bill similar to HB 5117, but progress has stalled. Supporters of that bill accuse legislators of caving to pressure from Monsanto. Last month for the New York TimesMark Bittman wrote“[A] Monsanto representative recently threatened a public official in Vermont that the biotech giant would sue the state if it dared to pass a GMO labeling.”

But what is all the fuss about anyway? Haven’t countless studies shown GMOs in food to be safe for human consumption?

“No way,” says Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, best-selling author, GMO expert and leading consumer advocate. “There is so much evidence to the contrary. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) published a position paper on this in which they recommended a moratorium on all GMOs.”

Supporters of the original bill are now looking to California, where efforts to get a GMO labeling ballot initiative lined up for popular vote in November 2012 have been successful. “If California goes,” says Paik, “then it will be a domino effect.”

“I want to be optimistic about California,” says Cook-Littman. “But after my experience in Connecticut, watching the will of the people be so utterly disregarded, it’s tough. We have to demand this. We’re not going to give up.”

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