Connecticut took the first step requiring producers to label genetically modified food Wednesday, as a legislative committee overwhelmingly backed a measure promoted as giving consumers more information while avoiding the debate over health concerns.
The legislature's Environment Committee voted 23-6 to approve the measure, allowing supporters to prevail over opponents who said the measure would lead to higher packaging costs.
"It's something that's coming, and I think we can be in the forefront in helping shape how it's done," said Democratic Rep. Richard Roy, the committee's House chairman. "Think of us as the mouse that roared."
The federal government and states do not require labeling for all genetically modified foods. Connecticut is among nearly 20 states considering a requirement, with backers saying genetically engineered foods pose allergy and other health risks and that labels give consumers valuable information.
The state Department of Agriculture opposes the legislation, saying that the federal government is responsible for setting national standards and that Connecticut would be at a competitive disadvantage with other states if it alone sets standards.
Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky told lawmakers at a hearing in February that genetically engineered crops are researched and designed "with a whole host of benefits in mind," such as drought resistance, reducing the need for pesticides and soil erosion, increasing production and driving down costs.
The Connecticut Farm Bureau also opposes the legislation. The group favors labeling when it's necessary to protect health or inform consumers who have allergies, said executive director Henry Talmage. The federal Food and Drug Administration is responsible for food labeling, he said.
"If you don't like what they FDA is doing, take it up with the FDA," he said in an interview.
The FDA has said genetically modified foods pose no greater health risks than traditional foods. A spokeswoman says genetically modified crops must meet regulatory standards and possible voluntary consultation to ensure they are safe.
Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States have been genetically modified to resist pesticides or insects, and corn and soy are common food ingredients.
Backers of the Connecticut legislation say consumers have a right to know what's in their food, and some supporters question the health risks associated with genetically modified food. Opponents say it increases packaging costs.
Republican Rep. John Piscopo questioned the logistics of separating labeled genetically modified food from products that do not need to be identified.
"I hesitate to ask you how exactly this would work," he said.
Connecticut Rep. Ted Moukawsher, a Democrat, said packaging costs will soar if producers are required to label only those items sold in Connecticut.
"I think we should stop indulging in these little exercises because I think we're just costing people money for no good reason," he said.
Republican Fred Camillo said research has not determined whether genetically altered food is safe, but consumers would benefit with more information.
"I'd rather err on the side of caution," he said. "This is your health you're talking about. I think that really trumps every other argument I've heard on this issue."