Battle looms over labeling law

KEKAHA — U.S. senators have struck a deal when it comes to the labeling of genetically modified organisms in food products.

While some in Hawaii support the proposed law, others oppose it.

“We are grateful to the senators who came together on a solution that will end the confusion and prevent a patchwork of labeling laws across the country,” said Bennette Misalucha, Hawaii Crop Improvement Association’s executive director. “This balanced, sensible approach represents a compromise that should satisfy all sides.”

The deal recently announced by the Republican and Democrat leaders of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee comes one week before Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law goes into effect, and requires nationwide labeling of GMOs in packaged food.

Vermont’s law will require items to be labeled: “produced with genetic engineering.”

Hawaii U.S .Sen. Mazie Hirono said the bill is a “step in the right direction toward reaching a compromise.”

“I support a strong mandatory federal label for GMOs that will allow families in Hawaii and across the country to make more informed decisions about the foods they buy,” Hirono said Tuesday. “I will continue to advocate for consumer choice as this bill makes its way through the Senate.”

Representatives from HCIA said the organization’s hope is both houses of Congress can move immediately to enact the agreement before the July 1 kick-off of the Vermont law to “prevent any unnecessary market disruptions.”

“We urge congressional leaders to keep up the momentum from this agreement and see legislation through,” Misalucha said. “Let’s resolve this issue in a bipartisan spirit of cooperation and move the country forward.”

The House is on vacation until July 5, so the agreement won’t be through the rest of the legislative process in time to preempt the Vermont law.

If the agreement becomes law, however, it will establish a national standard and state laws will have to bend to the feds.

The potential law is more lenient than the Vermont law because it allows food companies to use electronic labels that have to be scanned by smart phones in order to retrieve the information, as well as a symbol or a traditional text label.

Frank Kelly, a Koloa resident, said that’s the crux of his concern with the proposed legislation, which was passed through committee as an amendment of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946.

“If that becomes law, anyone that doesn’t want to eat GMOs is out of business unless you carry a scanner with you,” Kelly said. “I think the American public has the fundamental right to know what is in their food and then choose. This (proposed method) is so obscure.”

Jeri Di Pietro, president of Hawaii SEED, said she has some of the same concerns when it comes to using a scan code to retrieve ingredient information.

“A QR code (quick response code) that requires wifi and a smart phone data plan is inequitable and unacceptable,” Di Pietro said. “A QR code is not a meaningful label for food ingredients.”

The bill gives the US Department of Agriculture two years to write labeling rules and outlines further details on what should or shouldn’t be considered bioengineered food.

It addresses animal products and prohibits “a food derived from an animal to be considered a bioengineered food solely because the animal consumed feed produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered substance.”

The bill also establishes procedures for determining the amounts of a bioengineered substance that may be present in food, and exempts food served in a restaurant or “similar retail food establishment” and “very small food manufacturers.”

Also outlined in the agreement is the clarification that a food may not be considered “not bioengineered” or non-GMO just because the food doesn’t have a label saying it’s bioengineered.

HCIA representatives said the language moving through the Capitol “will satisfy consumers’ desire to know about GMOs with consistent labeling guidelines that prevent a chaotic, state-by-state hodgepodge of varying requirements.”

“Importantly, the agreement does not stigmatize genetically engineered foods,” HCIA representatives said in their statement.

Opponents of the agreement say it encroaches on the American public’s right to know what they’re eating.

“It’s amazing they had to pass this as an amendment to a 70-year old law they drug up from 1946. That’s the only way they’ll make this fly,” Kelly said. “It doesn’t get much sneakier than that and once it’s down as law, it’s in there.”

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