Industry Would Preempt State GMO Labeling Laws
By Stephanie Kraft
As Western Massachusetts legislators wait for their colleagues to decide the fate of GMO labeling bills, a food industry trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), is pushing a bill in Washington that would preempt state laws requiring such labeling on food.
Reps. Ellen Story of Amherst and Todd Smola of Palmer have each filed bills requiring food containing genetically engineered elements to be labeled as such. Smola’s bill goes one step further than Story’s by requiring that “All genetically engineered foods resulting from transfer of animal genes into plants … shall be labeled to indicate this fact in a manner that will allow vegetarians and those with dietary religious restrictions to observe their dietary guidelines.”
Story’s bill has been waiting to be reported out of the Joint Committee on Public Health since last spring; Smola’s is before the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.
If either bill passes, Massachusetts will join Connecticut and Maine, New England states that have already passed GMO labeling laws. But those laws can’t go into effect until similar laws are passed in adjoining states so that those states’ populations, together with Connecticut’s and/or Maine’s, add up to 20 million—because, says the food industry, it can’t deal with a patchwork of different laws in contiguous states. So the question of whether a law will pass in Massachusetts has wider implication for the labeling issue, since Massachusetts adjoins Connecticut and would add a population of 6.6 million toward the 20 million goal (Connecticut has 3.6 million, Maine 1.3).
Meanwhile, the food industry appears to be trying to avoid mounting a state-by-state anti-labeling offensive by proposing a bill that would allow for voluntary GMO labeling by food manufacturers. A “discussion” of the proposed law obtained by Politico explains, “The legislation would create a new legal framework, subject to FDA oversight, governing the use of label claims regarding either the absence of, or use of, genetically engineered food or food ingredients. … Given this new legal framework, states would be precluded from imposing any requirements that are not identical to these federal requirements.”
Critics of genetically manipulated food are also concerned because the industry’s proposed legislation stipulates that food with genetically engineered components would not be considered genetically engineered food. For example, dairy products made from the milk of cows fed with genetically engineered corn, or cheese made with genetically manipulated enzymes, would not be classed as GMO products.
For months, lobbyists for the food industry in Massachusetts have been telling legislators that consumers have a right to information, but that the FDA should handle the issue, and state legislatures should wait for a nationwide federal standard. Now the legislation brought forward by the GMA creates the appearance that that position may have been a ploy to get the Legislature to delay action on bills like Story’s and Smola’s until the industry could preempt state laws with a federal law that would kill meaningful labeling.•
Energy: Cutting Costs, Localizing Profits
A sign of the times in the Valley’s changing energy picture is the signup this winter of the town of Lancaster to the Hampshire Power energy purchasing consortium. Hampshire Power’s mission is to lower energy prices, keep the profits from energy sales local, and emphasize renewables. Lancaster’s new affiliation with Hampshire Power is especially well adapted to that mission because Lancaster has a solar farm.
Hampshire Power is paying the town $180,000 for energy credits generated by the solar farm; the money will go to help the town make bond payments on the farm. In return, Lancaster residents are now eligible for energy at the reduced rates Hampshire Power receives through bulk buying, rates that are projected to be 10 percent lower than what they would pay the area’s major electricity suppliers. Hampshire Power says it has saved its member communities more than $2.1 million in energy costs since it started up in 2006.
Hampshire Power was started up by the Hampshire Council of Governments, the successor to the Hampshire County government that ceased to exist when the state abolished counties. But by now the roster of 38 communities receiving bulk energy-buying services from the Hampshire Council of Governments includes towns outside Hampshire County, from Great Barrington in the Berkshires to Lancaster and other towns in Worcester County.
The Advocate asked Hampshire Council of Governments executive director Todd Ford how Hampshire Power achieves its goal of keeping the profits from energy sales in the Valley, since it buys much of its energy from national wholesalers. “You’re right in that Massachusetts unfortunately doesn’t produce a lot of our own energy, so no matter who you purchase energy through, [money] is going to the large wholesalers,” he said. “However, as with the Lancaster deal, we are buying all the renewable energy credits, and we buy energy credits from homeowners. Any margin we have stays within our nonprofit business structure and gets reinvested in programs and services in the community.” The Hampshire Council of Governments also engages in bulk purchasing of non-energy-related commodities for its member towns and school districts.• —SK
AG Candidate Healey Snags Support of LGBT PAC
Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Martha Coakley isn’t the only candidate on the campaign trail hoping voters will look favorably on her support of marriage equality. So is one of her former staffers, who hopes to succeed her one-time boss as AG.
Last week, Democrat Maura Healey—who worked in the Mass AG’s office from 2007 until last year, when she left to launch her campaign—announced that she’s won the endorsement of the Victory Fund, a national political action committee that backs LGBT candidates. “Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender office holders are our clearest and most convincing champions for true equality,” the PAC says. “As leaders in government, they become the face and voice of a community. They challenge the lies of extremists and speak authentically about themselves, their families and their community.”
In the endorsement announcement, Victory Fund president Chuck Wolfe cited Healey’s “strong record of leadership in the Attorney General’s office, where she fought for LGBT families across Massachusetts” and noted that, if she wins the office, she would be the first openly gay attorney general in the country.
Healey led the AG office’s legal challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and filed briefs in two monumental 2013 Supreme Court cases that struck down DOMA and overturned a ban on gay marriage in California.
Healey had already won the endorsement of the MassEquality PAC late last year.
According to the non-partisan watchdog Center for Responsive Politics, the Victory Fund made $638,262 in contributions in 2012, $500,000 of that to Women Vote!, a project of Emily’s List that supports Democratic candidates. Another $130,512 went directly to candidates, including Richard Tisei, a moderate Republican and former state legislator who ran, unsuccessfully, for Congress from Massachusetts’ 6th Congressional District.
Two other candidates have jumped into the AG’s race so far, both of them Democrats: Hank Naughton, a long-time member of the Mass. House of Representatives, and Warren Tolman, a former state senator who ran for lieutenant governor in 1998 and governor in 2002.•
Goodbye to Net Neutrality?
The Federal Communications Commission has no authority under current law to enforce net neutrality. That’s how the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled last week by a 2-to-1 margin, thus giving Internet carriers the right to create special rules for different kinds of Web traffic.
This decision paves the way for Comcast, Verizon, and competing companies to strike deals that would give certain traffic preferential treatment—i.e., hypothetically throttling Netflix while allowing streaming videos from Amazon Prime to buffer at full speed.
The judges based their decision on the fact that the FCC classifies selling Internet access as an “information” rather than a “telecommunications” service.
This designation means that Internet providers are not classified as “common carriers” like other companies that provide essential services for the public at fixed rates, such as those in the electricity or phone business. That limits the agency’s ability to prevent discrimination in service.
“AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast will be able to deliver some sites and services more quickly and reliably than others for any reason,” telecommunications lawyer Marvin Ammori told the Los Angeles Times. “Whim. Envy. Ignorance. Competition. Vengeance. Whatever. Or no reason at all.”
According to Bloomberg News, Verizon, the company that brought the suit, wants a “two-sided market” in which both subscribers and the companies that wish to reach them have to pay for the privilege of using the Internet.
However, market forces may put a brake on changes; it remains to be seen whether companies choose to alter the traditional “open Internet” model and risk alienating consumers who have grown accustomed to free choice on the Web. Comcast, for example, cannot adjust its service so as to take advantage of altered rules until January, 2018, as per the terms of its merger with NBC Universal.
The FCC has several options for challenging the court’s decision, including filing an appeal, asking Congress to provide new regulatory authority, or rewriting its rules for Internet providers. Consumers who want to let the FCC know their views should go to http://www.freepress.net/node/105543, the website of the Washington, D.C.- and Northampton-based media monitoring group Free Press. Click on Tell the FCC: Restore Net Neutrality in the right-hand column, then sign the letter to the FCC.•
ACLU Sues Over State Response To Drug Lab Scandal
The ACLU has filed a suit in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that would effectively nullify tens of thousands of criminal cases connected to Annie Dookhan, a former analyst with the Hinton state drug lab in Jamaica Plain. Dookhan is serving three to five years in prison for falsifying test results that were used as evidence.
The suit petitions the court to shift to prosecutors the burden of proving that the cases in question are legitimate, instead of asking defendants to bring up their cases individually. Prosecutors would then have 90 days to declare their intent to re-prosecute individual defendants or the convictions would be automatically vacated.
It also asks the court to rule that defendants in the cases in question cannot be “convicted of more serious offenses than those underlying their… convictions” or be sentenced to “longer prison terms than were previously imposed.”
These measures are necessary, according to the suit, because the Commonwealth has violated the due process rights of defendants with its slow and inadequate efforts to deal with the cases tainted by Dookhan’s actions. The ACLU points out that, two and a half years after Dookhan’s mishandling of evidence was discovered, the state has not even broken out the docket numbers of the cases affected.
“The alternative to this approach—re-examining cases one by one—has been tried, and it has failed,” The ACLU said on its website in announcing the suit. “This is the first case designed to deliver a fair, efficient, and comprehensive approach to the tainted convictions stemming from the ongoing Hinton lab scandal.”
While speaking to state police, Dookhan said that she falsified test results for two to three years, identified some samples as narcotics by sight instead of by testing them, and knowingly changed a negative into a positive result “a few times.”• —BL