Wednesday's hearing was a preview of the obstacles SB 1381 will have to overcome if it has any chance of landing on the governor's desk.

Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, the committee's chairman, voted against the bill, as did vice-chairman Sen. Joel Anderson, R-San Diego.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, huddled with Evans at the dais for several minutes before Wolk cast the final vote sending the bill out of committee by the narrowest of margins. Evans also voted for the bill as a member of the health committee. The bill needed five votes to clear the panel.

Wolk said she still has concerns that provisions in the bill allowing people to sue for alleged violations of the labeling law and to collect attorney's fees could lead to "mischief."

She said she and Evans agreed to "continue the conversation on fees and costs."

In what some observers called an unusual move, the Senate's Rules Committee assigned the GMO bill to three different committees. It is now set to be heard by the Senate's Judiciary and Agriculture committees.

Teala Schaff, a spokeswoman for Evans, called the triple referral "incredibly rare," saying it likely reflects lobbying efforts by those who are against the proposed legislation.

Representatives of California's food and farming industries were present Wednesday to denounce the bill, which they contend would expose retailers and farmers to litigation by placing the onus of confirming whether products contain genetically-engineered organisms on them.

"The ultimate liability rests with us," said Jamie Johansson, a member of the Butte County Farm Bureau.

Critics also contend there's no scientific proof that genetically altered organisms pose a threat to humans.

"The overwhelming scientific evidence is that genetically engineered foods ... are safe," said Kent Bradford, professor of plant science and director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis.

He argued that labeling would have a chilling effect on the research and development of drought and disease-resistance crops, citing as an example Hawaii's papaya industry, which he said was resurrected with the aid of modern technology.

"A bill like this would require those growers to label those products as if they are somehow inferior or stigmatized," Bradford said.

But Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, said there are still "open questions" about the safety of genetically-modified foods, including whether they are introducing new allergens into the food supply.

He said with labeling, "consumers who simply want to avoid these new foods can do so if they wish."

Genetically modified plants are engineered to resist insecticides and herbicides, to add nutritional benefits or improve crop yields and to increase the global food supply. Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States today have been genetically modified.

The Food and Drug Administration does not require genetically modified foods to carry a label, and attempts to change that at the federal level have failed. However, efforts to require labeling are pending in several states besides California.

In 2005, Sonoma County voters rejected a ballot measure that would have banned certain GMO products for 10 years, ostensibly to allow more time for testing.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.