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States mull genetically altered food labels

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island--In the absence of federal regulation, American state governments are considering laws to require labels on food items containing genetically modified ingredients.

Currently, only Connecticut and Maine have laws requiring labels for genetically modified food. But those requirements won't kick in until other U.S. states adopt their own rules. Bills to do just that are expected in more than two dozen states.

Seventy percent of processed foods contain at least one ingredient made or derived from genetically modified crops, known as GMOs, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. The industry-backed Grocery Manufacturers Association puts the number between 70 and 80 percent.

Dozens of nations including the members of the European Union already have GMO labeling laws. Scott Faber, executive director of the pro-GMO labeling organization Just Label It, said he believes the U.S. will follow suit, following pressure from states passing their own requirements first.

“Clearly the FDA has the authority to require labeling, but the states are leading the way,” Faber said. “Ultimately, once a number of states act, the federal government will too.”

Genetic modifications to a plant can improve its quality, hardiness or resistance to pests or disease. Scientific studies have found no evidence that GMOs are more harmful than foods without genetic modifications, but those pushing for label requirements point to the value in the information itself.

“I don't know if it's harmful or unhealthy, but it's something people have a right to know about,” said Rhode Island state Rep. Dennis Canario, a Democrat sponsoring a labeling bill. “They put calories on a package. They put the fat content. If the ingredients have been genetically altered, shouldn't that be listed on there somewhere?”

The proposals are opposed by biotechnology companies and many agricultural groups, who say genetic engineering has yielded more sustainable, affordable and productive farming around the globe. Business groups worry that labeling requirements would raise costs for food producers — and ultimately consumers — and raise unnecessary fears.

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