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Minn. GMO labeling bill hearing draws heated support, criticism

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Birchwood Cafe owner Tracy Singleton
Birchwood Cafe owner Tracy Singleton offered legislators non-GMO cookies as she testified to the House Commerce Committee, asking them to require genetically engineered labeling on food and ingredients.
Tim Nelson / MPR News

Dozens of people packed a Capitol hearing Thursday for a first hearing on a bill that would mandate disclosure of genetic engineering in food and food ingredients. 

Opponents of the labeling said it would pose an undue burden on food producers and needlessly alarm consumers. Supporters argued there is no good way for grocery customers, food makers or diners to tell what they're buying.

"In the past six months, I've received numerous written and verbal requests to label GMO (Genetically-modified organisms) containing ingredients in our stores or discontinue a possibly GMO containing product," said Liz McMann, consumer affairs manager at Mississippi Market in St. Paul. "My response is always the same. My hands are tied. Without mandatory labeling, it's impossible to know if a non-organic product contains genetically modified organisms or not."

McMann testified in favor of the measure offered by Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis. It would make Minnesota the fourth state to pass a law requiring GMO labeling as soon as next summer. Clark compared it to now-mandatory requirements that employers tell workers about toxins in their workplace, once opposed by industry. Vermont passed a GMO labeling mandate yesterday and the governor there is expected to sign it into law, effective in 2016.

"Our consumers, state our citizens, have a right to know when there's genetically engineered food before them. This real basic right to know is a health issue, it's a science issue," Clark told the committee.

But opponents of the measure cautioned lawmakers to be careful what they mandate. They said a wide variety of foods are already genetically modified, and labeling could turn consumers away from safe foods that have offer other benefits, like reducing use of insecticides, less need for water and getting better yields without burning more fossil fuel.

Perry Aasness
Perry Aasness, executive director of the Minnesota Agri-Growth council, asked legislators not to enact a state requirement to label genetically engineered foods.
Tim Nelson / MPR News

Perry Aasness, executive director of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, told lawmakers that GMO food is safe and urged them not to try and manage food labeling in Minnesota. The Council represents the state's agriculture industry, from farmers to industrial giants like including Cargill, Hormel and General Mills. 

"It's ultimately an anti-biotechnology bill," Aasness said. "The national and international science community and U.S. government bodies alike have found that these products are essentially identical to conventional varieties and pose no greater risk than non-GMO food products."

The state's grocers also testified against the bill. Jamie Pfuhl, who represents about 1,100 stores and 100 distributors as president of the Minnesota Grocers Association, told lawmakers that it will hurt grocers and their customers.

She said the mandate would limit selection in stores, drive up costs and put Minnesota retailers at a disadvantage to competitors at the state's borders and Internet food sellers. Pfuhl said a federal law that would have the Food and Drug Association set a standard similar to its organic label would be a better option and provide a level playing field. "It serves the entire food chain from farm to fork and provides a clear definition and consistent message for consumers," Pfuhl said.

Supporters of the measure took issue with those arguments: they were worried that the risks of GMO in food aren't fully understood, and said people need labels to make informed choices about what they're eating. They also said that federal regulation often only happens in response to widespread state action that force's Congress's hand.

Others told lawmakers a lack of labeling is already costly for consumers, who now only have the option of picking premium organic food and ingredients.

Tracy Singleton, owner of the well-known Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, said she had to hire a third party to certify two of the suppliers for her granola as non-GMO.

"I don't know the patent on GMOs and I certainly don't profit from them," Singleton told the committee. "It costs me time money to avoid them," said Singleton. "Why then, do I have to pay the price to assure my customers that my food doesn't contain something they don't want in the first place."

The hearing had no real effect today, and the bill didn't get a vote. While it has some senior members of the House as co-sponsors, it didn't make a procedural deadline this session. It also doesn't have a companion measure in the Senate, so it stands little chance of passing this year.