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Two years from now, Hawaii residents may see labels on some food products at the grocery store indicating that they contain genetically modified ingredients.
That’s because President Barack Obama signed a bill Friday creating a new mandatory federal GMO labeling program.
The full impact of the measure on Hawaii producers and consumers is unknown because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has two years to come up with specific rules for the program.
Supporters of GMO labeling also say the bill is flawed because it allows the use of confusing symbols — such as a QR code, or in some cases, a phone number — in lieu of simply writing: “Produced with genetically engineered ingredients.”
The measure also blocks states from requiring GMO labels, immediately nullifying Vermont’s law to that effect, and leaves out some genetically modified products.
“It’s a fake GMO labeling bill,” said Nomi Carmona, a longtime local advocate for GMO food labeling who leads a group called Babes Against Biotech.
“I never like legislation that prohibits states from being even more progressive. But to be totally frank, I tried for the last three or four years to do it and I was unable to get consensus to pass a bill.” — State Sen. Josh Green
She said she’s disappointed in what she sees as Obama’s broken promise to label genetically modified food.
“It’s meant to placate and assuage versus actually providing real solutions,” Carmona said.
Bennette Misalucha, who leads the local trade group for seed companies such as Monsanto that grow genetically engineered crops, said the bill is a compromise.
“Everybody recognizes that this is a compromise bill but I think that it’s the best that we have for now,” she said, emphasizing that studies have shown that it’s safe to eat food with genetically modified ingredients.
State Sen. Josh Green has been trying for years to advance a GMO labeling law in the Hawaii Legislature, but his bills never make it far.
Green has concerns about the national measure, including the clarity of the labels and the preemption of state labeling laws. But on the whole, he thinks it’s a step forward.
“I never like legislation that prohibits states from being even more progressive,” he said. “But to be totally frank, I tried for the last three or four years to do it and I was unable to get consensus to pass a bill. This is better than not passing any legislation.”
The federal legislation also won’t quell the debate over GMOs in Hawaii. While food labeling has been a hot topic in Vermont and Oregon, concerns about GMOs in Hawaii have often centered on seed companies’ farming practices, given the industry’s widespread presence in the Hawaiian islands.
Green said he will continue to push for mandatory disclosure of what pesticides large agricultural companies use and where they are applied. Carmona said the potential health and environmental impacts of pesticide use in GMO farming is a bigger focus of hers than GMO food labeling.
“That is far more of a concern for me, although I’ll never stop fighting for transparency,” Carmona said.
The new GMO food labeling law creates a mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard that will go into effect in no later than two years.
The USDA has already created a working group that will create a timeline for the rule-making process. The USDA still needs to decide exactly what amount of genetically engineered substance would qualify a food product to receive a label.
The disclosure requirements don’t apply to food derived from animals that ate genetically engineered feed, food served in restaurants or food produced by “very small food manufacturers.”
Food manufacturers can decide whether the disclosure is through written word, a symbol or electronic link such as a QR code.
Small food manufacturers don’t have to implement the law for another three years, and can also choose to use a telephone number or a website in lieu of text, symbols or electronic links.
For example, if you pick up a box of food at the grocery store, you may read, “Scan here for more food information.” Then you’d need to use your smartphone to access a webpage that indicates that a product contains genetically modified ingredients.
The law requires the USDA to conduct a study a year from now to figure out whether the electronic links like QR codes provide sufficient disclosure to consumers.
Local governments are prohibited from passing legislation that mandates a different GMO food disclosure requirement, and the law doesn’t include any enforcement mechanism to make sure that companies comply.
It’s unclear whether the law will apply to genetically engineered high fructose corn syrup and other processed food, according to an analysis by PolitiFact.
Sen. Mazie Hirono was the only member of Hawaii’s congressional delegation who voted in favor of the bill. The measure passed the U.S. Senate on a vote of 63-30.
“This bill is not a referendum on GMOs. It is a labeling bill that is a step toward providing consumers consistent information about the food they eat,” she said in a statement Monday.
Hirono maintained that the bill would label thousands more products than Vermont’s GMO labeling law would have done. She noted that even if the federal government won’t enforce the law, states can do so by establishing their own penalties. Hawaii can also impose other regulations on GMOs.
“I understand and appreciate these concerns, which can be expressed directly to the USDA during the rulemaking process,” she said.
She promised to work closely with the USDA during the rule-making process, and emphasized that the new law “sets a floor, not a ceiling.”
Her colleague, Sen. Brian Schatz, wasn’t convinced.
“Labeling should be done on the package in plain language, or with an easily recognizable symbol,” he said in a statement after he voted against the bill. “This doesn’t meet the commonsense definition of a food label.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was even more scathing, describing the bill as “a weak attempt to placate American consumers by creating the illusion of transparency.”
“This labeling system requires consumers to jump through hoops for information that should be very basic and straightforward,” Gabbard said in a statement. “In addition, it lacks any measures to hold companies accountable if they violate these labeling requirements.”
Gov. David Ige’s spokeswoman said Monday that Ige wasn’t familiar enough with the details of the bill to comment on its effect on Hawaii, but he generally supports a federal standard for GMO food labeling.
Scott Enright, who heads the state Department of Agriculture, said the bill wasn’t driven by scientific studies but by consumer demand.
“It seems to be sufficient for some and insufficient for others, which is the way things often are,” he said during a phone interview Monday. “We’ll wait and see if this is sufficient for the consumers.”
Read the bill below: