WASHINGTON, March 4, 2015 – The clock is ticking on an effort to get Congress to preempt state GMO labeling laws. The biotech and food industries are revising a bill that Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., introduced last year but has yet to be introduced in the new Congress, and lawmakers already have a lot on their plates to get done before the 2016 campaigns heat up.

One key change that’s likely to be made in the legislation: The revised bill would give the USDA some shared jurisdiction with the Food and Drug Administration, according to a biotech industry source. That means that the House Agriculture Committee would have jurisdiction over the bill along with Energy and Commerce, which oversees FDA.

Biotech wants to broaden sponsorship for the legislation to include the Agriculture Committee membership as well as draw more Democrats. “Policymakers as well as industry recognize that if a bill is to move it has to go through both houses with bipartisan support,” and “there wasn’t a lot of (House) Agriculture Committee support” for Pompeo’s measure (HR 4432), the source said. Of the 37 cosponsors, just four were Democrats.

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, declined to talk about the new bill, except to say that “we’re looking at the issue to decide where the solution might lie.” The committee’s ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, isn’t ready to support such a bill. He told Agri-Pulse that he thinks the bill is premature because there needs to be a more up-to-date, agreed-upon definition of what constitutes genetic engineering.

USDA is undertaking an extensive review of its biotech regulatory process that could include studying the definition of what techniques are covered. “We’re certainly not in any position to say we’re redefining” what methods will be regulated, “but we’re looking at everything again,” said Kevin Shea, the administrator of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

APHIS last week withdrew a 2008 proposed rule, developing during the Bush administration, that would have overhauled USDA’s regulatory process. “We’re starting fresh,” Shea said. He said the review would be comprehensive and likely take several years, which means it will extend into the next administration.

A handful of Agriculture Committee members cosponsored Pompeo’s bill last year, but neither Conaway nor Peterson did. A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee didn’t hold a hearing on the bill until last December, long after there was any chance of moving the legislation.

“I don’t think the Pompeo bill is ready, but I think we should do something,” Peterson said. There has to be “a definition of what is a GMO that everybody agrees to. If we don’t come up with a definition we can’t fix it.”

Under existing federal policy that dates back to 1986, the regulation of biotechnology focuses on transgenic species, which are bred through inserting a gene or group of genes from one species into another. The major herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant crops now on the market contain genes taken from bacteria.

But companies are increasingly transforming crops simply by inserting genes from related plants and by using a technique called RNA interference to switch genes on and off. Biotech companies have already used RNA interference to tweak soybeans to produce more healthful oils, such as Monsanto’s Vistive Gold and DuPont’s Plenish, and to engineer virus-resistant food crops.

Meanwhile, with vocal support from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, food manufacturers are discussing plans to embed information about genetic engineering into the barcodes on products that can be read by smartphones. The information also could be available on the web and could include other information on environmental concerns, such as carbon footprint.

“We have to find a way to provide this information that is user friendly and truthful,” the biotech industry official said. The idea won’t satisfy anti-biotech advocates but it will allow the food industry a way to disclose GMO ingredients without wording on the labeling that industry believes would amount to a warning.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is coordinating the discussions, declined to release any details. “People want more and more information about the products they buy, use and consume, and GMA is actively discussing ways to further provide consumers with this important information,” the group said in a statement.

Vilsack brought up the barcode idea at a American Farm Bureau Federation more than a year ago and, without mentioning the GMA effort, referred to the concept again during a pair of congressional hearings last week and then again during a speech at Commodity Classic.

“You can’t have 50 different sets of rules. That’s crazy. That’s not going to work,” Vilsack told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, referring to the state GMO labeling initiatives. “What you can do is use this barcode.”

In a swipe at demands for GMO labeling on foods, Vilsack said, “You have the right to know, but you don’t have a right to know in a way that conveys a misperception about the product.”

Gary Ruskin, executive director of the pro-labeling U.S. Right to Know, slammed Vilsack for promoting the barcode idea.  “Is the Obama administration in the pocket of Big Food?  It sure acts that way,” he said. “A fancy smart phone and a pricy data plan should not be prerequisites for knowing if your food has been genetically engineered,” he said.

Certifying foods as non-GMO so that they can be labeled that way is a better idea than requiring labeling for products with biotech ingredients, says the president of the American Soybean Association, Wade Cowan.

“We’ve too long been the organizations that said ‘no,’” he said during a press conference at Commodity Classic, where all of the potato chips served at lunch carried a “no-GMO” label. “We want to propose a positive outreach, a new dialogue that tells consumers we understand that they want to know what’s in their food.”

He said that state-by-state GMO labeling requirements don’t make sense because of the variation in exceptions. So far, Vermont is the only state to pass a law requiring labels on food made with GMO ingredients that does not require similar action from surrounding states. Vermont’s law is now being challenged in the courts.


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