USDA assures House chairman on GMO disclosure bill

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 8, 2016 - House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway says the Senate-passed GMO disclosure bill is “riddled with ambiguity,” but he declared his support for its passage after the Agriculture Department assured him among other things that the legislation would nullify Vermont's labeling law.

The House is expected to take up the bill next week before lawmakers break for the national party conventions and the annual August recess.

In a letter to Conaway, USDA's general counsel assured him that the legislation would immediately preempt Vermont's GMO labeling mandate, which took effect July 1, and bar any other states from imposing requirements that differ from the new federal standards. There has been some concern that the preemption provisions could be interpreted to not be effective until USDA finalizes a rule that will be needed to implement the federal disclosure standards. The bill would give USDA two years to write the rule but it could easily take longer than that.

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In response to other questions from the chairman, the general counsel also said that the bill wouldn't give USDA any new authority to require anything other than disclosure of biotech ingredients and that the department couldn't extend its existing recall authority to cover products that fail to meet the disclosure standards. 

"After spending the past week and a half studying the legislation and meeting with agricultural producers, along with a variety of other stakeholders, I have come to the conclusion that the Senate bill is riddled with ambiguity and affords the Secretary a concerning level of discretion,” Conaway said in a statement the committee released Friday. 

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He went on to say, “While I will never fully support federally mandating the disclosure of information that has absolutely nothing to do with nutrition, health, or safety, it is my expectation that this legislation will be considered on the House floor next week, and it is my intention to support this bill.”

The Senate passed the bill 63-30 late Thursday despite criticism that the bill's definition of bioengineering was so tight that it would exempt from disclosure many highly refined ingredients, including oils and starches, and products developed through gene editing and other newer techniques.

USDA's general counsel provided a letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee's ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, that said the definition broadly covered both ingredients and bioengineering methods. 

House GOP leaders have been trying to figure out to pass the bill without subjecting it to amendments. Any changes in the bill would require the legislation to be sent back to the Senate. House passage would send the bill to President Obama for his signature. 

The Senate bill would allow most food companies three methods of disclosure through a digital code that can be read smartphones or with a symbol or text on package labels. The majority of companies are expected to opt for using the digital, QR code designed to used with the industry's SmartLabel program. 

Small companies would be allowed to use a phone number or website address on the label. Companies considered “very small” would be exempt from the disclosure requirement. 

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