Hartford — Saying they just want the tools to be able to make informed decisions about their food, a coalition including about two dozen southeastern Connecticut residents urged lawmakers on Friday to support a bill that would require the labeling of foods with genetically modified ingredients.
"We shouldn't be guinea pigs," said Kathleen Guinan of Waterford, a volunteer in the Right to Know GMO CT coalition, which gathered at the Legislative Office Building for a Public Health Committee public hearing on the bill. The Right to Know group is a coalition of organic farming, consumer, business, parent and environmental groups.
Guinan, who has been attending weekly meetings with others supporters at Bean & Leaf in New London for the past three months, said there has been insufficient research into the effects of genetically modified ingredients on humans and the environment.
The bill would require labeling of processed foods with more than 0.9 percent genetically modified ingredients, as well as fruits and vegetables grown from genetically engineered seeds. Food producers still would be able to use and sell these foods, and restaurants would not be required to label menu items with those ingredients.
"The bill is about our right to know," said Meagan Erhart of Lyme, who also has been active in the campaign.
Will Vanderbilt of Mystic, local organizer for the national group Food and Water Watch, said more than 1,600 southeastern Connecticut residents have signed a petition supporting the bill.
More than 45 people signed up to testify at the hearing, the majority of them supporters of the bill. Opponents included representatives of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Connecticut United for Research Excellence. They argue that the bill would raise food costs, making the state's farmers less competitive. It also runs contrary to research showing that genetically modified ingredients are safe.
"Last year, Connecticut lawmakers understood that mandatory labeling requirements achieve no health or scientific benefit and they wisely rejected the measure," said Paul Pescatello, president and chief executive officer of CURE, referring to a similar measure proposed last year.
There are no safety or health benefits to labeling bioengineered food, said Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association.
Among those who testified in support of the bill was Jerry Greenfield, one of the founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. As part of the campaign, about 200 cups of Cherry Garcia and AmeriCone Dream were available outside the hearing room. Greenfield said the company's product will be totally free of all genetically modified ingredients by 2014, a shift it is making because its consumers want it. Currently, about 80 percent of the ingredients meet that criteria, he said.
"We are going to be able to make this conversion without having to raise prices or affect our company's margins," he said.
Other speakers said the labeling requirement would not raise costs because the change could be made during one of the frequent label updates manufacturers undertake. They added that genetic labeling is already required in the European Union and many other countries including China, Russia and Japan, and that because of this, U.S. growers and manufacturers already have to segregate supply chains for export.
For Mary Kate Glenn, farm manager with FRESH New London, the issue has both local and global significance. With labels, she said, she can choose to avoid genetically modified foods and not support an industry she believes is hurting farmers. In addition, she said the measure will help the state's small farmers, the majority of whom already sell foods that have not been genetically modified.
"This gives consumers the chance to make the choice about what we're putting into our bodies and what kinds of businesses we want to support," she said.