Congress tackles GMO labeling

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A bill that would allow federal policy on labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms to supercede local efforts passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

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A bill that would allow federal policy on labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms to supercede local efforts passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act is known as the Deny Americans the Right to Know, or DARK, Act by its opponents. It passed 275-150 to move to the Senate for consideration.

Speaking before the House vote Thursday, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard denounced the measure, saying it made a “mockery of transparency.”

The bill lays out criteria for determining whether a food can be deemed GMO or non-GMO, and requires that developers of bioengineered organisms notify the Food and Drug Administration of this status before their product goes to market. The notification must include the developer’s assurance of the product’s safety as compared to non-GMO food.

The House bill allows for labeling products as containing GMOs, but does not require it.

The section that has drawn the most concern from opponents is one that specifically pre-empts state and local restrictions on labeling requirements.

“It’s against the public interest,” state Sen. Russell Ruderman (D-Puna, Ka‘u) told the Tribune-Herald Thursday. “Whether you’re for or against or neutral about GMOs, there’s nothing wrong with the right to know. To make informed choices, you have to have information.”

Vermont is currently the only state with a law requiring GMO foods to be labeled. It was signed in 2014 and will take effect next summer. Connecticut was the first state to pass GMO labeling legislation, in 2013, but it will not take effect until at least four nearby states pass similar laws.

A mandatory labeling bill was brought to the Hawaii state Senate in this year’s legislative session, but didn’t make it far.

In testimony from the Department of Health regarding the state bill, officials said that while they didn’t object to a labeling policy to “enhance public awareness,” they did not have the resources to make the measure successful.

“Furthermore we do not conduct genetic engineering work; and therefore, do not possess the requisite scientific expertise, capacity, equipment and experience to test and determine whether a suspected food or food product has been genetically engineered at a confidence that could withstand legal challenges,” the department wrote.

Ruderman said that he felt the tide was quickly turning against unlabeled GMOs, but that Hawaii was unlikely to pass a labeling bill in the next few years.

“I’m sure people will propose similar bills, and I’m sure people will kill them,” he said. “It’s corporate interest being protected at the expense of public interest.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said in a statement that she supported consumer choice and safety, but acknowledged the scientific benefits of using biotechnology to improve crops and help feed “our ever-growing global population.”

According to the Associated Press, most of the country’s corn and soybean crops, which goes into animal feed, is now genetically modified. A recent AP poll found that two-thirds of Americans supported labeling of GMO ingredients.

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“My hope is that Congress can work to strike a better balance between competing interests than what is currently offered in the House bill,” Hirono said.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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