AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite concerns that any law forcing food producers to label products containing genetically modified organisms could lead to a challenge in the courts, the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee approved a labeling measure on an 8-3 vote Tuesday.

The bill, LD 718, offered by Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, wouldn’t go into full effect until 2018 and only after four of the nine northeastern states approve similar laws.

A genetically modified organism is a plant or animal that is created with the use of gene splicing. Advocates for organic food products have said foods made with GMOs have been linked to “thousands of toxic and allergenic reactions,” although others claim the science is incomplete.

Proponents of labeling say consumers, at a minimum, should have the right to know what’s in their food. The most common genetically modified foods in the U.S. include soybeans and corn.

The committee approved the bill despite a carefully worded warning by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.

Mills told the committee Tuesday that while public opinion polls may indicate strong support for GMO labeling laws, those measures could be challenged by opponents as being in violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.

“The First Amendment applies both to laws compelling speech and to laws restricting speech,” Mills said.

Mills also said a labeling law could violate the federal government’s right to regulate interstate commerce and it could be pre-empted by existing federal food labeling regulations.

Mills was careful to note that the Legislature could still pass the law, but they should anticipate mounting a legal defense for it, as it would be challenged.

She further warned the state could be left paying the legal fees of opponents to the bill if a federal judge ruled against the state law.

Mills said later it was an issue for the U.S. Congress to address. There are 18 other states that are contemplating GMO labeling laws, but so far none has been enacted.

But some committee members seemed undeterred, noting those opposed to GMO labeling, including agribusiness companies such as Monsanto or large retail grocer associations, would likely mount legal challenges to any law that impacts their profits.

“Let’s be practical,” Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, said. “It doesn’t matter what we did in this committee with anything related to genetically modified organisms, we would be facing a lawsuit from large organizations or enterprises without a doubt.”

Harvell, the bill’s sponsor, later described those organizations as “lawyers with seeds.”

Those in opposition to the bill said they believe it will end up costing the state the expense of a lawsuit and it could also drive up what many consider already high food prices.

Committee member Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, voted against the measure Tuesday but not before he acknowledged that his constituents were largely in favor of the bill.

Timberlake said he could possibly support the measure were its implementation hitched to all five New England states passing similar laws.

Timberlake said that because two of the largest distribution centers for grocery retailers in New England are based in Maine, a labeling law here would create distribution issues that would hurt local businesses and consumers. The measure could hurt Maine farmers and food processors as well, he said.

Timberlake said he didn’t support the overall concept of the bill, but could back it with those changes.

“Even though I don’t agree with it — at the end of the day I don’t think it’s right — but the constituents of my area think it’s what we should be doing,” Timberlake said. “I’m here to represent not just my feelings but my constituents’ feelings and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Lance Dutson, a spokesman for a group of agricultural and retail businesses in opposition to the bill, said the Legislature would be advised to heed Mills’ warning. The measure will hurt Maine families by increasing the price of food here, Dutson said.

“Attorney General Mills’ review of LD 718 reaffirms our concerns about the serious constitutional problems with this bill, as well as the concerns about a potentially expensive legal challenge if the bill were to pass,” Dutson said. “As we’ve said before, LD 718 is a bill with no scientific basis, and now it appears that the bill also has no constitutional standing either.”

Dutson said, “The USDA, FDA, the American Medical Association and numerous other scientific organizations have made it clear that there is no nutritional difference between GMO and non-GMO food.”

Harvell said that while he was pleased with the vote Tuesday, he also anticipates those opposed to labeling would mount an intense effort to defeat the bill when it reaches the full House of Representatives.

“It’s been a long walk,” Harvell said. “I think the attorney general’s points are valid, but the reality is that biotech is the big bogeyman in the room and nobody wants to take him on. There weren’t a lot people who told David to go after Goliath either; they all didn’t take him too seriously.”

Harvell’s bill also has broad bipartisan support, with 123 co-sponsors.

Meanwhile, a new report released Tuesday morning by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections highlighted how much opponents of the GMO labeling bill had donated to candidates, campaigns and political action committees in Maine over the past 12 years.

The report notes supporters of Harvell’s bill, including Maine Conservation Voters and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, donated just $27,276 to political campaigns, while opponents, including the ag-industry giant Monsanto and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, donated more than 10 times that amount — $280,850.

“While there seems to be a growing appetite for GMO labeling in Maine, industries that find this legislation less palatable have invested heavily in Maine campaigns,” Andrew Bossie, MCEE’s executive director, said in a prepared statement.

Harvell said he expected a fight from agribusinesses on the issue.

“We will take it a step at a time,” he said. “Whenever you are breaking new ground, there’s always a fight.”

Severin Beliveau, an attorney and lobbyist working for MOFGA, also told the committee Tuesday that were the bill enacted and challenged, the state would have support in defending it. He said MOFGA would be an involved party if a Maine GMO labeling law was challenged in federal court.

“The attorney general will not be alone on this issue, I can assure you that, guarantee you that, as a matter of fact,” Beliveau said.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.