WASHINGTON, April 3, 2014 – The head of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) told a congressional panel yesterday that the department plans to have the backlog of pending petitions for biotechnology products reduced by half within a year.
“We expect equilibrium, with the same number [of petitions] coming in as coming out,” APHIS Administrator Kevin Shea said in response to questions during a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee agriculture subcommittee.
APHIS has come under fire recently over complaints that the petition process is too lengthy, sometimes taking years for companies to gain approval to get a product to market.
Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., asked USDA officials why the review process is so lengthy, noting the department spent nearly 900 days to get approvals for eight products. “Many in Congress are concerned that the politics of biotech may be interfering with the scientific review process,” Aderholt said. Of 22 backlogged petitions from 2013, the department has approved six, he said.
Ed Avalos, USDA undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs, said the department is committed to reducing the petition timeline, “but in a way that does not impact the integrity of our work.”
Avalos and Shea told lawmakers that USDA needs the time to get a petition decision right in hopes of avoiding litigation. “We don’t want to deregulate a product and then face litigation, which we have faced on every major product we have deregulated,” Shea said. “We have to be careful that we don’t make a decision that can be overturned in court.”
After the hearing, Aderholt said the panel plans to make sure Shea keeps his promise about cutting the backlog. “We’ll hold him to that,” Aderholt told reporters.
During the hearing, Aderholt asked Shea how much money USDA has had to pay to settle cases related to approval of the use of genetically-modified organisms. Shea said payments have not been made in 2014, but that in 2012, USDA paid out $3 million. “We end up paying plaintiffs’ legal fees because they prevail on grounds that we have not done sufficient environ impact statements,” Shea said. “We are trying so hard to do all the required environmental work up front.”
On citrus health, Aderholt expressed concern over decreased funding levels in President Obama’s budget request to fight citrus greening. Aderholt said Congress has “clearly emphasized” its priorities in regards to the issue, and noted that Florida has lost about $3.6 billion in revenues and more than 6,600 jobs since 2006 as a result of the disease, technically known as Huanglongbing, or HLB.
Shea said APHIS received $20 million in FY 2014 to focus on fighting HLB, a bacterial disease that has devastated millions of acres of citrus groves, largely in Florida.
On another issue, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., asked about the status of U.S. animal exports to the Ukraine region in the wake of the Crimea crisis, and possible sanctions against Russia.
Shea said U.S. officials are continuing to negotiate animal export agreements and that he was not aware of any impact from possible sanctions. “We’ve sent thousands of live cattle to that region in past few years and we will stay on top of this,” Shea said.
Lastly, Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Miss., expressed interest in USDA’s program to combat rabies. Avalos said the administration’s budget plan would allow APHIS to focus on maintaining the program, but not to expand it or to fund eradication in a specific region.
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