Hawaii modified food bills battered but alive
Published: Thursday, Mar. 6, 2014 - 5:12 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Mar. 6, 2014 - 7:37 pm
HONOLULU -- The chairwoman of the Hawaii House Agriculture Committee said Thursday she intends to fight for a bill that would establish a task force to study genetically modified foods.
But Democratic Rep. Jessica Wooley said she thinks SB 2454 doesn't include enough meaningful regulation. She says she would like to see labeling of genetically modified foods because many people want to know whether their groceries include those ingredients.
"What is a task force going to tell us?" said Wooley, who represents Koolaupoko. "Whether it's safe or not safe? I've seen all sides, and it's clear we shouldn't be telling people you can't grow GMO (genetically modified organisms).
"But we have a current problem, which is, the consumers don't have a right to know," she said.
As contentious as its debate in Hawaii has been, Wooley said, simply labeling genetically modified foods as such would deflate tension around the issue.
The task force measure has already passed the Senate. Wooley said her House committee will take it up. The committee can offer changes to the bill.
A bill (HB 174) that would require labeling of genetically modified foods passed the House last year but has since been ignored in the Senate. A Senate measure (SB 2521) that would require labeling of genetically modified food and seeds made its way only partway through committee. It then languished, and was never sent to the Senate floor for a vote.
One major Senate obstacle to genetically modified food labeling is Wooley's counterpart there: Sen. Clarence Nishihara, the Agriculture Committee chairman. His committee this year declined to consider a Senate measure (SB 3084) that would have required retailers to label genetically modified food.
Nishihara, who represents Ewa, said he opposes state measures to label genetically modified foods because they could jack up the price of imported food and run afoul of federal regulations, exposing the state to potential lawsuits.
"If you had food that were to come from the mainland, you'd have to say that they make a special label just for Hawaii," he said. "We didn't think that was going to be workable. If it raised the cost of food because of labeling, then the consumer would pay it."
The result, Nishihara said, would be higher prices and fewer choices at grocery stores in a state already pinched by high food prices.
Any move to require labeling would also have to withstand the strong possibility of a lawsuit. In testimony last year on HB 174, Wade Hargrove III, the deputy in the state attorney general office who handles food and drug regulation, identified three areas in which that bill as written would be vulnerable to litigation.
He said the measure risked overstepping existing federal regulations on genetically modified foods, running afoul of interstate commerce law by requiring labels only on imported foods, and inviting a challenge on First Amendment grounds by requiring labels for a feature of foods that the federal government deems safe for consumption without consumer warnings such as those on, for example, alcohol.
His role is merely one of a legal adviser to lawmakers, Wade said, and predicting possible constitutional law conflicts is an inexact science. "We are readers of tea leaves," he said Thursday. He has offered no testimony yet on 2014 bills, but said those areas should still be considered likely avenues by which a company or individual could challenge any future labeling proposals.
Sam Eifling can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sameifling.