WASHINGTON >> Both of Hawaii's Democratic House members voted against a bill that prevents states from requiring food companies to disclose whether their products contain genetically modified ingredients.
The bill passed the House Thursday 275 to 150. U.S. Reps. Mark Takai and Tulsi Gabbard both voted against it.
The House bill is backed by the food industry, which has fought mandatory labeling efforts in several states around the country. The legislation would prevent states from requiring package labels to indicate the presence of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
"My state of Hawai‘i is the number one state for experimental genetically engineered plant field trials, according to the USDA. Many of my constituents are very concerned about these GE crop field testings because of the lack of information about these trials and the pesticides that are being applied to the fields," Gabbard said in a speech on the House floor.
Gabbard said the bill could overturn a ban on the cultivation of genetically-engineered coffee and genetically-engineered taro in Hawaii.
"The consumers of our nation deserve to have clarity and be able to make their own decisions on the type of food they buy,” Takai said in a news release.
Vermont is the only state set to require the labels. That law will take effect in July 2016 if it survives a legal challenge from the food industry. Maine and Connecticut have also passed laws requiring the labeling, but those measures don't take effect unless neighboring states follow suit.
The country's largest food companies say genetically modified foods are safe and that labels would be misleading. They say a patchwork of laws around the country would be expensive for companies and confusing for consumers.
"The reality is, biotechnology has time and time again proved safe," the bill's sponsor, Kansas Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, said on the House floor. "We should not raise prices on consumers based on the wishes of a handful of activists."
Advocates for the labels say people have a right to know what is in their food and criticize the legislation for trying to take away states' ability to require the labels.
"What's the problem with letting consumers know what they are buying?" asked Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat.
Genetically modified seeds are engineered in laboratories to have certain traits, like resistance to herbicides. The majority of the country's corn and soybean crop is now genetically modified, with much of that going to animal feed. It also is made into popular processed food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soybean oil.
The food industry says about 75 percent to 80 percent of packaged foods contain genetically modified ingredients.