Thousands Sign Petition In Support of Labeling Foods Containing GMOs

On Beacon Hill a host of bills were also proposed to force food distributors to put warnings on products.

Massachusetts is following the bread trail started by other states trying to strong-arm food distribution companies into plastering bold labels on edible products that contain genetically modified organisms, before they hit store shelves.

Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont all have filed labeling legislation initiatives that have advanced this year, trying to hold companies accountable if foods containing GMOs are for sale, and on June 11, Massachusetts tried to get in on the action.

The Joint Committee on Public Health heard testimony from activists and legislative leaders who oppose the use of GMOs, during a public hearing at the State House on Beacon Hill. During the hearing, the committee took on 21 different bills concerning “food safety, nutrition and labeling,” three of which were related specifically to GMOs. “[Labeling would] more clearly identify products people would be consuming relative to their linkage to genetic modification,” said State Representative Todd Smola, R-Palmer, a sponsor of one of the bills that went before the committee for consideration. “It’s important. People want to know what they are buying. If you go and purchase food that is linked to a GMO, folks want to know what they are dealing with— it’s a health and safety concern. We are trying to bring greater attention to those products, and bring a little bit of exposure to the issue.”

Researchers and activists claim consuming foods containing GMOs can lead to serious health risks, and can be linked to cancer, infertility and birth defects.

Smola said his proposal, which will now be considered by the committee, would require food packages to be labeled if they contain GMOs, and put in a provision that if a company knowingly violated the labeling law, they could be substantially fined. “We are trying to put some teeth into this proposal,” he said.

Timothy O’Neill the research director for the Joint Committee on Public Health said the deadline for the committee’s decision on whether to move the GMO bills forward is March 20, of 2014, leaving activists with just under a year to get their message heard.

The June 11 hearing was held only a few days after Connecticut passed one of the most comprehensive GMO labeling bills in the nation, however, their proposal still faces some major obstacles. More states, like New Hampshire and Vermont, are also trying to combat the use of GMOs in foods, and raise awareness about their use by requesting companies place easily identifiable labels on foods that may have been modified.

In May, protesters took to the streets of Boston as part of an international protest against Monsanto, one of the leading agricultural biotech corporations that produce genetically engineered seeds. The rally, called “March Against Monsanto,” urged legislative leaders to force food labeling so that consumers can make informed decisions about what they buy and eat.

Two months prior to the protests, President Barack Obama signed a bill that protects companies like Monsanto from lawsuits over potential health risks. Protesters dubbed the legislation the “Monsanto Protection Act.” The protests were part of a growing concern here in the state, which has the backing of groups like Massachusetts Right to Know GMOs, who has has lobbied elected officials in an effort to pass legislation to label foods. “In free markets, labels ensure transparency, protecting American’s right to choose what we buy,” said Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now! “The GMO labeling bills discussed last week in the Massachusetts State House are important because of the growing momentum building in state labeling efforts in the Northeast and across the country. Connecticut and Maine have now passed GMO labeling bills, Massachusetts could be next.”

This week, thousands of constituents also signed their names to a separate online petition urging Governor Deval Patrick and other legislative leaders to take action, and sign bills like Smola’s into law. “We have a right to know what is in the food we eat, what we are feeding to our families, and what we are growing in our farms and gardens. We are asking for a GMO labeling bill to be signed into law this session that will be effective at preserving the transparency of our food supply,” the petition, posted to says. “Our children and future generations will thank you for taking action now to protect the genetic integrity of our food, our seeds, and our bodies.”

As of Wednesday, the petition had received over 10,000 signatures from people all over Massachusetts.

“If you come to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, [companies] should have to meet certain standards. And we want to put those on the books,” Smola said of his proposal. “We are finding all types of requirements relative to a product someone buys over the counter, so why not do something in respect to GMOS?”

Alexandra Graziano contributed to this report.