House Ag members consider USDA-run non-GMO certification program

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, June 25, 2015-The chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research, says that the success of USDA's marketing programs indicate a proposed non-GMO certification program could be a viable solution for consumers wanting to avoid genetically engineered food products.

“We just heard from USDA that they have the capability and resources to provide valuable oversight of these voluntary marketing claims,” Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., said at a hearing today, adding that the Agriculture Committee is considering proposed legislation “that seeks to put in place a policy to make this work.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently reviewed this draft legislation, which would require a non-GMO certification program administered by USDA. Sponsored by Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K Butterfield, D-N.C., The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act would pre-empt mandatory state laws to label food made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms), while establishing a national, voluntary system for labeling products made with biotechnology.

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Craig Morris, deputy administrator of the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) Livestock and Seed Program, testified that while voluntary marketing programs through AMS are funded primarily by user fees, the agency may need funding to establish the standard for non-GMO certification.

USDA already administers an organic certification program, which has standards in place that must be met for any food product to be labeled “organic.”

“In order to sell, label, or represent their products as organic, operations must follow the specifications set out by the USDA organic regulations,” he explained.

The discussion draft of the Pompeo bill, which the Energy/Commerce and Agriculture Committees worked together to craft, proposes a similar program for food products that manufacturers want to label as “non-GMO.”

AMS also runs a process verified program (PVP) for many food claims, including Perdue's brand for cage-free and Tyson's no-antibiotics-ever chicken. USDA recently provided a non-GMO PVP for SunOpta, a Minnesota-based organic and specialty foods company.

Morris noted that the PVP program only verifies that the companies are properly completing their own processes and standards for its claims. So, USDA did not establish a non-GMO standard or threshold through the PVP.

The use of genetic engineering, or GMOs, is prohibited in organic products, USDA notes. However, products that claim to be “non-GMO” are not necessarily produced with organic standards.

During the hearing, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., argued that polls indicate consumers want mandatory GMO labels on food products, so the government should provide them, instead of “coming up with a standard for non-GMO.”

Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, which supports mandatory GMO labels, said in a statement that Pompeo's bill is an effort “to keep consumers in the dark by also blocking state efforts to protect farmers and rural residents from dangerous herbicides used with GMO crops.”     

The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF), which includes an array of food companies and agricultural groups, issued a statement in support of the Pompeo bill and the “consumer-friendly” non-GMO certification provision, noting that most packaged foods on store shelves are made with GMO ingredients.

“The best solution is to have a national standard for labeling GMO-free foods so consumers have relevant information,” stated CFSAF spokesperson Claire Parker. “Labeling something as GMO-free is consistent with labeling food that is gluten-free or free of some ingredient. We should label the exception, not the rule.”

Several states have attempted to pass mandatory laws that would require GMO labels on certain foods, and Vermont passed one such law last year that is being challenged in court by the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Morris said that no state has approached AMS to consider verifying potential “contains GMO” labels.

“USDA is what is what we rely on for these labels,” said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., adding that varying mandatory laws across different jurisdictions would cause more confusion for consumers. “We need a uniform standard to give confidence to consumers.”

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This story was updated on 6/25/2015.

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