WASHINGTON, June 17, 2015 – The most recent version of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act -- a bill that would create a national standard for the voluntary labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – was circulated late last week and includes new language clarifying USDA’s role in the proposal.
Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., introduced H.R. 1599, in March. The House Energy and Commerce Committee and House Agriculture Committee worked jointly to revise the bill and released a discussion draft before an Energy and Commerce hearing on the legislation this Thursday.
Language that preempts state laws requiring mandatory labels on food made with genetically engineered (GE) crops is unchanged – a core component sought by many food manufacturers and agribusinesses who seek passage before Vermont’s labeling law is implemented on July 1, 2016. The draft does clarify that a developer cannot commercialize a new GE trait until FDA ensures it is safe.
The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, which includes scores of agricultural groups and food companies that oppose mandatory GMO labeling efforts, said the draft language “will ensure the legislation can gain even broader support.”
The new language also builds on a proposal that requires food makers to go through a USDA program to receive a certified non-GMO label for their products. That program would be similar to one now administered by USDA for its National Organic Program. According to the draft, USDA would set up a certification program that allows food manufacturers to place a non-GMO label on their products only if they met USDA requirements. The agency would have the same authority over non-GMO label claims as it does over organic label claims.
The Center for Food Safety (CFS), which supports a bill introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that mandates labels for foods made with GE products, said this program “prohibits any private label claims that do not comply with or go through USDA’s program.” It would also make it more difficult for companies to voluntarily label products as being made with GE ingredients if they wished to do so, said Colin O’Neil, the director of government affairs at CFS.
The discussion draft also clarifies the coordination between USDA and the FDA-- which is responsible for food safety -- when it comes to regulating biotech food.
Before a new GE trait is approved by USDA and before it can be commercialized into the market, the developers of the trait must complete FDA’s safety process and send the results to USDA, noting that there are no further concerns relative to the safety of that trait.
Currently, almost every developer of a GE product chooses to go through the voluntary FDA process to determine its safety. The Pompeo bill would require the developer to submit its material from FDA - ensuring that the product is safe before the product can be lawfully commercialized.
These changes would be made through amendments to the Plant Protection Act, a statute introduced in 2000 that directs USDA to regulate the introduction of plant pests in the U.S. The act consolidated responsibilities that were previously spread over various other laws such as the Plant Quarantine Act, the Federal Plant Pest Act and the Federal Noxious Weed Act of 1974.
Additionally, the draft requires the further development of a public website listing all GE traits, along with the petitions submitted by manufacturers and determinations made by FDA and USDA. This website already exists, but the language would not only require USDA to list deregulated traits but also those that the agency decided it did not need to regulate.
This requirement serves to “address some of the issues with transparency” regarding government regulation of GE food, Randy Russell, of the agriculture consulting firm The Russell Group, said in an interview.
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives CEO Chuck Conner said the provisions will strengthen consumer confidence in food safety. “The bill continues to build momentum and these changes will help to attract even more bipartisan support for the measure,” he said in a statement.
The Center for Food Safety disagrees, saying the new language in the bill would end the ability of states and counties to create GE-free agricultural zones. “A major concern from farmers is the failure of USDA to adequately protect conventional and organic [crops] from contamination (from GE crops),” O’Neil said.
The purpose of these zones, which exist in states including California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii, are to “protect traditional farmers from GE contamination as well as communities from exposure to associated pesticides,” CFS said in a statement.
The discussion draft says that no state can establish “any requirement with respect to the use of genetically engineered plants for a food use or application” that is not identical to federal law.
However, Russell claimed any preemption language in the bill “is meant to affect food labels, not cultivation.” House Agriculture Committee staff familiar with the discussion draft said there is no intention that this language applies to cultivation, and that it only applies to food.
O’Neil said the discussion draft as a whole is concerning, because “it severely weakens already feeble regulation of GE crops at USDA.”
Another change in the bill includes the removal of the definition or any reference to the term “natural,” which is proving problematic for some food companies that choose to place the term on their packaging.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, emphasized that the language is merely a draft, and he expects to continue “to receive input from stakeholders and technical assistance from USDA to ensure the final text is correct, workable, and enjoys significant bipartisan support.”
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