A GMO labeling bill passed the state Senate Health Committee on Monday evening but faces a tortuous path to get through the rest of the chamber.
The bill would establish labeling requirements, starting in January 2015, on any food sold in Hawaii that contains or was produced with genetically engineered material. Violations would be punishable by fines of up to $1,000.
"There seems to be the expression from the people of Hawaii that they'd like to know what's in their food," said state Sen. Josh Green (D, Naalehu-Kailua-Kona), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, which advanced the bill in a 3-0 vote. "I don't think it's more complicated for me than that, but I respect everyone's opinions."
Last session, the Senate held a GMO labeling bill that was approved by the state House, so the committee vote was a notable procedural step. But some Senate Democrats read the move more as a policy statement by Green than a sign that senators would embrace GMO labeling this session.
The bill -- Senate Bill 2736, introduced by state Sen. J. Kalani English (D, East Maui-Upcountry-Molokai-Lanai) -- has had multiple committee referrals over the past several days as Senate leaders attempt to manage both internal politics and outside pressure from anti-GMO activists.
On Monday, Senate leaders added the Senate Agriculture Committee to the referral, which already included the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
State Sens. Rosalyn Baker (D, West Maui-South Maui), chairwoman of the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, and Clarence Nishihara (D, Waipahu-Pearl City), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, stalled GMO labeling last session.
Baker, who serves as vice chairwoman on the Senate Health Committee, voted with reservations Monday to advance the GMO labeling bill but only as a courtesy to Green.
"People got a chance to air their concerns," she said afterward. "I still don't believe that the state has the authority to do this."
Nishihara, who also sits on the Health Committee, left the hearing on the bill before the vote.
"The bill is flawed on so many levels," he said.
Under the bill, no GMO food could be sold in Hawaii unless it bears a label with a disclosure notice in bold-face print and not smaller than 10-point type. The state Department of Health would be required to test food to determine the presence of GMOs.
The department told the Senate that the state could not enforce the bill because practical and legally defensible methods to test for GMOs do not exist. The department also said that there is no conclusive scientific evidence of negative health effects from GMOs, so labeling is not a health issue and should not be assigned to the department.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has jurisdiction over food labeling.
The Hawaii Food Industry Association and the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation warned that GMO labeling could lead some food manufacturers not to distribute to Hawaii and others to raise food prices to pay for labeling costs. Hawaii, because of its geographic isolation, already has some of the highest food prices in the nation.
Alicia Maluafiti, executive director of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents biotechnology companies, said she supports the marketing option of labeling food that is GMO-free. She compared it to food products labeled "kosher" that conform to Jewish dietary laws.
"If you want certain foods because of a lifestyle or religious or philosophical choice, then you go that way," Maluafiti said.
But Nomi Carmona, president of Babes Against Biotech, said she does not believe there is a scientific consensus that GMO food is safe. She questioned why the United States would not follow the 64 other countries with some form of GMO labeling.
This month Maine became the second state -- after Connecticut -- to approve GMO labeling, but the requirement in Maine does not go into effect unless five other nearby states also approve labeling.
"Please honor our right to know what's in the food that we're eating," Carmona told senators. "It shouldn't be such a huge debate. Why don't we get to know what's in our food? Why don't they want to tell us? What's the big deal? If they're so proud of it, then they should label it."
Several lawmakers privately believe that some of their colleagues are playing to the vocal anti-GMO activists and progressives, who are planning a rally tomorrow at the state Capitol, regardless of the merits of the issue.
Along with the Progressive Democrats of Hawaii, activists with the Democratic Party of Hawaii and the party's environmental and Native Hawaiian wings testified for GMO labeling Monday, which was too much for a perturbed state Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Kahala-Hawaii Kai), who walked out of the hearing.
State Sen. Malama Solomon (D, Kaupulehu-Waimea-North Hilo), who had sat in on the hearing, also left after complaining that the Democratic Party should decide its position on GMOs at the state convention in May. The party had adopted a resolution in support of GMO labeling at its convention in 2012.
Credit: Derrick DePledge