By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
During the last session of the state Legislature, critics of genetically engineered food made a push to set labeling requirements for grocery shelves.
Over a half dozen bills to label transgenic food, mostly focusing on imported items, were introduced.
None of the bills made it through, partly due to concerns that they may be found unconstitutional.
Instead, legislators opted to pass a resolution urging the state to study the impacts a labeling requirement would have.
But it’s not the end of the issue, lawmakers believe, and some are making plants to introduce similar bills again next year.
“I think it will be a never-ending journey,” said Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-Hilo.
Tsuji, who serves on the House Committee on Agriculture, introduced a bill providing for voluntary labeling of transgenic and non-transgenic food, including penalties for false claims.
While a supporter of the much-criticised seed industry in Hawaii, which produces transgenic and non-transgenic seed, Tsuji said he also supports the consumers’ right to know.
“As legislators, we should be looking at both sides of the ledger,” he said.
Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, introduced one of the more stringent bills.
His would have required the state Department of Agriculture to issue a permit for importing or introducing transgenic crops. It would also allow for a public hearing.
“I believe at a very bare minimum … we should not allow new species of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to be experimented in Hawaii without some regulatory process,” Ruderman said.
Carol Okada, plant quarantine branch manager for the state Department of Agriculture, said the state does have regulations and oversight for transgenic crops.
Its responsibilities include giving concurrence to field trial permits issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and inspections of trial sites, she said.
But such regulations do not extend to commercialized transgenic crops, and no public hearings are currently held.
Ruderman said he plans to introduce his bill again. He also believes the state needs to continue pursuing labeling laws, even if they would get challenged in court.
Additionally, Ruderman said he also plans to introduce a bill next session that would apply the state’s general excise tax to the seed the companies export to the mainland.
Since they don’t leave the companies’ hands, they likely don’t pay excise taxes on the export, said Mark Phillipson, president of the seed trade group, Hawaii Crop Improvement Association.
Seed companies pay about $29.3 million in state taxes annually, according to the HCIA, with $13.8 million in excise taxes on other parts of their operations.
Critics say the companies get away with paying less taxes than other farming operations would, since the seed is shipped to other company locations on the mainland.
State Rep. Richard Onishi, House agriculture committee vice chair, said labeling requirements could be difficult for the state to enforce.
The place for such regulation might be at the federal level, he said.
“Obviously, that will have a greater effect in therms of manufactured products,” said Onishi, D-Hilo, Keaau, Kurtistown, Volcano.
Onishi said the state should also fund a public service announcement informing consumers on what food products contain transgenic ingredients.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.