LIHUE — The annual push is on.
Some, including the Department of Health, say a state law requiring genetically engineered foods to be labeled would be costly, and the task of making sure a food has or doesn’t have such traits is next to impossible.
Others, however, point to countries such as Brazil and Russia, which already require labeling, and say knowing what’s in food and being able to make informed choices is a basic human right. Any cost, they argue, would — and should — fall on the manufacturers.
Ultimately, Hawaii’s legislators will decide.
Last month, in what has become an annual discussion point, state senators introduced a bill that would make it illegal, starting Jan. 1, for GE food to be sold in the state unless it bears a label that reads, “This product contains a genetically engineered material, or was produced with a genetically engineered material.”
Peter Oshiro, DOH environmental health program manager, called the proposal a “paper tiger,” one that would be unenforceable and carry no weight.
If passed, he said, DOH would have to create an entirely new branch, hire experts in biotechnology and genetics and purchase millions of dollars worth of equipment.
And even after all that, DOH would not be able to make any guarantees.
“People don’t understand DNA. It’s not a simple formula,” Oshiro said. “Unless you have the marker you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it.”
A pair of Senate committees advanced Senate Bill 131 on Feb. 19. It has been referred to the committees on Commerce and Consumer Protection and Ways and Means. A hearing date has not been set. Nearly 600 pages of testimony have been submitted so far.
While DOH is not against labeling in order to enhance public awareness, it doesn’t want to be the agency responsible for regulating such a law.
“It’s fine on the surface, but we won’t be able to test or validate any claims,” Oshiro said, adding that in the world of health, it comes down to science. “To date there still is zero evidence that eating GE foods has any negative health effects.”
That’s why the department doesn’t believe labeling is a health issue and doesn’t support any program being assigned to the department to administer it. He said labeling would “require substantial resources.”
Makoto Lane, vice chair of Kauai Young Democrats, said any argument about cost is ridiculous given the companies are likely spending more fighting labeling than they would if they just agreed to disclose the information necessary to label GM food.
Apart from all the environmentally detrimental impacts chemical corpor-ations in commercial farming have had, he said, people deserve to know exactly what they are putting in their bodies.
“In the age of information, any campaign to censor my access of information is bad,” he said. “Sixty-four other significant countries have GMO labeling regulations, so no extra burden on packaging. The GMO industry has lax independent oversight.”
Mark Phillipson, a spokesman for Syngenta on Kauai, agreed with DOH that the costs would be staggering.
He said that in the case of food from GE crops, labeling is not a safety issue but a consumer choice issue.
“Governments wishing to implement product labeling in the interest of ‘consumer choice’ must carefully weigh the importance of providing consumer information on the one hand with the associated costs and practicality on the other,” he wrote in an email to The Garden Island.
“A 50-state patchwork of GMO labeling laws would mislead consumers, raise the price of groceries for American families and do nothing to ensure food safety. A federal solution would protect consumers and provide food and beverage companies with a uniform set of standards established by the FDA, the nation’s foremost food safety authority.”
Phillipson added that the smallest part is the label itself. What would have to go on behind the label is what would increase costs to the supply chain, processors and manufacturers.
“Basically, after initial set-up costs (establishment of uniform protocol and processes, equipment and personnel) for up-tracking and tracing food ingredients and then the ongoing follow through on these systems and distribution channels, is where the costs lie,” he wrote. “In the end, we, the consumers pay.”
Among those who submitted testimony in support of the measure is Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser, the man behind a county law that sought to regulate the disclosure and use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms by large-scale commercial agriculture companies.
A judge later ruled the law was pre-empted and therefore invalid. But Hooser is still pushing for more oversight on the companies.
“Without question, the level of sensitivity to chemicals and food allergens vary tremendously from person to person. Without labeling, people are unable to make informed choices,” Hooser wrote in his testimony. “Though there are many numerous studies on the health impacts of consuming GMO products, few of these studies have been conducted by independent researchers focusing on the long-term impacts on humans, specifically children and pregnant women.”
Stephanie Iona of Dow AgroSciences on Kauai said that while her company supports the federal government’s position that there is no health or safety basis for labeling GMO food, it recognizes some consumers want their food produced without GMO technology.
“But market dynamics are already meeting their needs, giving them broad access to tens of thousands of food products already voluntarily labeled by their producers as ‘organic’ or ‘non-GM,’ without the need for special government intervention,” she wrote.
At the very core of the issue is people’s sense of freedom, Lane said.
By passing its own law, Hawaii can take the country one step closer toward a federal labeling initiative. And the more states that jump on board, the better, he said.
“When 64 other established countries have the freedom to make a decision that we don’t, can we really call ourselves free?” he said.