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CU testifies on a bill that will amend Maine’s genetically modified food products labeling law

Testimony on LD991, an Act to Amend Maine’s Genetically Modified Food Products Labeling Law
Before the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry
Augusta, ME

Michael Hansen, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist, Consumers Union
April 30, 2015

Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony in support of LD 991, an Act to Amend Maine’s Genetically Modified Food Products Labeling Law, which would remove the trigger clause which currently prevents the labeling law (LD 718) from going into effect unless certain other states pass similar laws within five years.  My name is Michael Hansen and I am a biologist at Consumers Union1[1] (CU), the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, which is located in Yonkers, NY.  I have worked on the issue of genetically engineered (GE) foods for more than 20 years and have been involved in the decisions/debate about these foods at the state, national and international levels.

We urge you to remove the trigger clause.  There is new urgency for labeling of genetically engineered food.  Two months ago, 17 experts from 11 countries, brought together by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for the Research on Cancer (IARC), unanimously concluded that glyphosate, an herbicide previously thought to be relatively benign by pesticide regulators, was “probably carcinogenic to humans” (e.g. Group 2A).[2]  This classification was based on limited evidence from case control epidemiology studies (which found a link with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in studies from US,[3] Canada,[4] and Sweden[5]) and sufficient evidence from animal studies (2 studies in mice, 2 studies in rats).  In addition, there was strong evidence for mechanism of action (or how glyphosate may lead to cancer), e.g. genotoxicity and oxidative stress.[6]  Of the 17 experts involved in this decision, two were from the US EPA, one from the US National Institute of the Environmental Health Sciences, and one was from California EPA  The Chair of the Committee was Dr. Aaron Blair, who, prior to retiring, lead the occupational cancer unit at the National Cancer Institute for 30 years.[7]

This finding, that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic in humans, is important since the virtually all GE food crops have been engineered to withstand the weed killer glyphosate.  As a result, as acreage in GE crops has expanded, so has glyphosate use.  In the period between 1996 and 2011, during which GE crops were introduced into U.S. agriculture, herbicide use was greatly increased.[8]  In 1995 some 20 million pounds of glyphosate were used in US agriculture; by 2012 that figure had increased, more than ten times over, to an estimated 280 million pounds.[9]  This drastic increase in glyphosate use has almost certainly increased the residues on food.  Although the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program doesn’t collect data on glyphosate residues in foods, one study that did look, published in the journal Food Chemistry, found glyphosate residues in all the samples of soy they tested, which were from ten different farms growing GE soy in Iowa.[10]  Labelling of GE foods would allow consumers concerned about potential residues to minimize their glyphosate exposure.

If Maine is concerned about whether their GE labeling bill would hold up in court, the decision of the US District Court for the District of Vermont, announced early this week should be very reassuring.   The Court turned down the request of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and their allies for an injunction against Vermont’s mandatory GE labeling law, ruling against three often cited objections to labeling.[11]  The Court decided that labels such as “produced with genetic engineering,” or “partially produced with genetic engineering” do not violate the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, are not preempted by federal law, and do not violate the First Amendment rights of the companies producing GE foods.  The court also dismissed the idea that the GE labeling bill is only based on a desire to gratify consumer curiosity.  Indeed, the court stated that the “(T)he safety of food products, the protection of the environment, and the accommodation of religious belief and practices are all quintessential government interests, as is the State’s desire ‘to promote informed consumer decision-making.’”[12]  As for the argument that GE labels are “political speech,” or that they are “controversial,” the Court disagreed and noted that the GE disclosure requirement “remains a factual disclosure regarding a food product’s ingredients made in conjunction with the purchase and sale of food.”[13]

Due to the new concern over the upgrading of glyphosate to “probably carcinogenic to humans” and to the US District Court’s decision on Vermont’s labeling law, we urge Maine to delete the trigger found in LD 718, to allow the labeling of GE foods in Maine.  Thus, we urge you to pass LD 991.


[1] Consumers Union is the public policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. Consumers Union works for telecommunications reform, health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues. Consumer Reports, a non-profit, is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization.  Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually.  Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website, and other publications.

[2] Guyton KZ, Loomis D, Grosse Y et al.  2015.  Carcinogenicity of tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate.  Lancet Oncology, At: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045%2815%2970134-8/abstract

[3] De Ross AJ, Zahm SH, Cantor KP, Weisenburger DD, Holmes FF, Burmeister LF and A Blair.  2003.  Integrative assessment of multiple pesticides as risk factors for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among men. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 60:e11 At:  http://oem.bmj.com/content/60/9/e11.full.pdf

[4] McDuffie HH, Pahwa P, McLaughlin JR et al. 2001.  Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and specific pesticide exposures in men: cross-Canada study of pesticides and health.  Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention, 10:1155-1163. At: http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/10/11/1155.full.pdf

[5] Eriksson M, Hardell L, Carlberg M and Akerman M. 2008.  Pesticide exposure as risk factor for non-Hodgkin lymphoma including histopathological subgroup analysis.  International Journal of Cancer, 123: 1657-1663. At: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.23589/epdf

[6] Guyton et al. 2015. Op cit.

[7] IBID

[8] Benbrook, CM.  2012.  Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S.—the first 16 years.

Environmental Sciences Europe, 24:24. At: http://www.enveurope.com/content/pdf/2190‐4715‐24‐24.pdf

[9] US Geologic Service.  Pesticide National Synthesis Project.  At: http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/pnsp/usage/maps/show_map.php?year=2005&map=GLYPHOSATE&hilo=L

[10] Bøhn T, Cuhra M, Traavik T, Sanden M, Fagan J and R Primicerio.  Compositional differences in soybeans on the market:  glyphosate accumulates in Roundup Ready GM soybeans.  Food Chemistry 153: 207-215.  At: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814613019201

[11] Grocery Manufacturers Association et al. v William Sorrell, Peter Shumlin, Tracy Dolan and James Reardon.  2015.  Case No. 5:14-cv-117.  OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS AND DENYING PLAINTIFFS’ MOTION FOR A PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION.  At: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/vermont-decision_81793.pdf

[12] Pp. 63-64 in IBID.

[13] Pg. 54 in IBID.