Connecticut passes GMO labeling law… sort of

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A GMO labeling bill, House Bill 6527, was just recently passed by both houses in the Connecticut state legislature. The bipartisan bill had strong support from state legislators (voted 134-3 in the House and 34-0 in the Senate). The most current version of the new act can be found here.

The new law is being heralded by some as a significant victory for the GMO labeling movement since Connecticut will be the first state in the nation to require GMO labeling. Senate President Donald E. Williams (D-Brooklyn), who was not a sponsor of the bill, commented on one of the reasons for why the law was enacted, saying, “This bipartisan agreement means that Connecticut families have all the information they need to make informed, healthy choices when feeding their families… There is mounting scientific evidence showing genetically modified foods are harmful to our health” (from a press release issued June 1 2013 from the Governor’s Office).

Putting the reasons for enacting the law aside, there are a few interesting points to consider about Connecticut’s new statute:

1. Before this law, Connecticut had no legal definition of a genetically modified organism listed anywhere in its statutes or administrative code. Twenty-nine other states have also not defined the term.* Now, according to this new law, genetic engineering is defined in Connecticut as:

“…a process by which a food or food ingredient that is produced from an organism or organisms in which the genetic material has been changed through the application of: (A) In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) techniques and the direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles; or (B) fusion of cells, including protoplast fusion, or hybridization techniques that overcome natural physiological, reproductive or recombination barriers, where the donor cells or protoplasts do not fall within the same taxonomic group, in a way that does not occur by natural multiplication or natural recombination,” (section 2(2)).

2. Foods that are excluded from the law’s provisions:

  • Alcoholic beverages (section 3(b)(1)); click here for one example of how beer can be genetically modified.
  • Produce sold at roadside stands, pick-your-own farms, and farmers’ markets (section 3(b)(3)).
  • Meat from animals that were not genetically modified but were fed genetically modified food or were given genetically modified drugs (section 3(b)(4)).
  • Food that is intended for immediate consumption and is never packaged for retail sale (section 3(b)(2)). So, restaurants and hotdog stands are off the hook for labeling their foods.

The exclusion of farmers’ markets and restaurants is particularly interesting. It seems grocery stores are the main target for GMO labeling initiatives, as with the ballot propositions I-522 in Washington and California Proposition 37.

3. The most intriguing aspect of the law is the huge caveat that the entire thing hinges on. Connecticut’s law will only become effective if both of the following occur:

  • “Four states, not including [Connecticut], enact a mandatory labeling law for genetically-engineered foods,” section 3(a)(1). One of these four states must border Connecticut.
  • Any number of northeastern states (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) enact similar legislation and have a combined population of 20 million people or more (section 3(a)(2)).

The reason for this caveat, as explained by the Connecticut Governor’s Office press release, is to protect “local farming by ensuring that the regional agriculture market has adopted the new labeling system before placing an undue and disproportionate burden on Connecticut farmers that requires them to analyze and label products.” So now Connecticut has officially put the pressure on New England legislators to make things happen. All of the northeastern states listed have proposed GMO labeling bills during their current legislative sessions (see link to Center for Food Safety below).

For more information on states’ GMO labeling initiatives, check out this list compiled by the Center for Food Safety.

*No definitions were found for the following states while searching for the terms “genetically modified”, “genetically engineered”, or “transgenic” in all state’s statutes and administrative code using the LexisNexis Academic database: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah. Any bills with definitions enacted during the most recent legislative sessions were not included.

Follow Caroline Coatney:
Caroline is currently a graduate student in the Plant Biology department at the University of Georgia. She is working in the Dawe Lab and studies the genetics responsible for perenniality in species closely related to corn. Before starting graduate school, Caroline worked for a year as a science writer for the Illinois State Legislature.