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Missouri next battleground state for GMO labeling

A 'No GMOs' label. (Timonty Valentine/flickr)
A 'No GMOs' label. (Timonty Valentine/flickr)

When legislation mandating genetically-modified food labels was proposed in California, Oregon and Washington, I wasn't necessarily surprised. But the recent news that GMO labeling is being considered in Missouri was a little bit of a shock.

The bill, Senate Bill 155, was sponsored by a Democratic senator from St. Louis named Jamilah Nasheed. If passed, it would go into effect on Sept. 1, 2015 and would require genetically-modified meat or fish produced and sold in the Show-Me State to bear labels noting that fact.

“While I understand that food production is an integral Missouri industry, I don’t feel the trend of biotechnology and genetically engineered foods is always apparent to the average citizen,” Nasheed said in a news release posted on her Web site. “I am merely asking for clarity in the sale of certain genetically engineered, or GE, foods to Missouri’s consumers.”

In the language of the bill, genetically-modified meat or fish is defined as “any animal or fish whose genetic structure has been altered at the molecular level by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes, including recombinant DNA and RNA techniques, cell fusion, gene deletion or doubling, introduction  of exogenous genetic material, alteration of the position of a gene, or similar procedure.”

GMO labels would also be required on the offspring of genetically-modified animals and fish. Companies knowingly violating the labeling law would face Class C misdemeanors, which in Missouri means up to 15 days in jail and a fine of up to $300.

“I don’t want to hinder any producer of genetically modified goods,” Nasheed said. “However, I strongly feel that people have the right to know what they are putting into their bodies. By requiring a label indicating genetic modification in their meat selection, Missourians will have the choice to purchase the GE foods or not. Citizens have the right to be informed and to make their own decisions based on education and information.”

Opponents of GMO labeling bills -- like food industry giants Monsanto, Kraft and Dow AgroSciences -- have argued that such legislation is unnecessary because they don't believe there's any evidence genetically-modifed food isn't safe. Mike Deering, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, says Senate Bill 155 will also cost companies astronomical sums of money from the farm to the fork.

"If passed, this legislation will result in costly and extreme food labeling requirements," Deering told me in an e-mail. "If I read this bill correctly, it swings the door wide open for Missouri to require that a lot of common grocery products be repackaged and relabeled if they contain genetically engineered ingredients. This change in Missouri policy would harm farmers, grocers, food companies and small businesses and the customers they serve." 

If passed, Senate Bill 155 would fall under the jurisdiction of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which could extend the law after it goes into effect.

The New Mexico Senate is also considering a GMO labeling bill, and "The People's Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act" recently qualified for the 2013 ballot in Washington state. Food labeling advocates in Oregon are also gathering support for a GMO labeling bill.