House compromises on labeling of genetically modified foods

The House of Representatives voted 114-7 early Friday to approve a compromise bill on the labeling of genetically engineered foods, ending a day of frantic negotiation to resolve the issue before the General Assembly breaks for the Memorial Day weekend.

If passed by the Senate, the bill would make Connecticut the first state to enact a labeling law, but nothing would take effect unless five other states with an aggregate population of 25 million people adopt a substantially similar rule on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

The compromise led by House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, puts Connecticut out-front on a controversial issue — but not too far. 

“I am very pleased we were able to pass GMO labeling legislation that can become the first of its kind law in the nation. It was done on a bipartisan basis in concert with the governor, and I’m hopeful it serves as a model for other states to join us,” Sharkey said in a statement.

But advocates of GMO labeling said the compromise was a political sop.

“It is very clear the trigger is designed to block the bill from ever taking effect,” said Tara Cook-Littman of Fairfield, the leader of a grass-roots effort, “The trigger they put in is really designed as a roadblock, not a trigger.”

She said the advocates will urge the Senate, which passed a much stronger version, to reject the House bill, even if that means ending the session without a labeling law.

“We’ll just come back stronger,” she said.

With the Senate previously approving GMO legislation opposed by Sharkey and the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the issue seemed likely to die from inaction in the final two weeks of the 2013 session of the General Assembly, but Sharkey found himself the target of intense grass-roots lobbying.

The first-term speaker was seen walking from meeting to meeting, talking outside the House chamber with Mark Ojakian, the governor’s chief of staff, huddling just off the House floor with House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, and visiting Senate leaders on the third floor.

After an overnight debate on an immigration bill that ended after sunrise Thursday, Sharkey was not going to call the GMO bill without assurances of no substantial GOP opposition. 

The heart of the compromise was the unusual trigger provision requiring that other states pass similar laws. The bill  requires that two of the five trigger states “border Connecticut or are New York and New Jersey.”

If the condition is met, food intended for human consumption or seed intended to produce food for humans that has been genetically modified must carry a conspicuous label that says, “Produced with Genetic Engineering.”

The Center for Food Safety, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that has long supported GMO labeling, lists 25 states that have bills filed to do that. But only Maine and Vermont are actively considering their legislation.

A GMO bill passed by the Senate on a 35-1 vote had an easier trigger: If three states in the region approve similar labeling, Connecticut’s law would go into effect in July 2015. If that trigger is not reached, labeling would go into effect in July 2016.

The roll call is online.