WASHINGTON, June 18, 2015— Most lawmakers present at a House hearing on labeling of biotech foods today expressed support for a bill that would codify a national, voluntary standard for labeling such foods and preempt state GMO [genetically modified organism] labeling laws.
The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health reviewed the most recent version of a bill, H.R. 1599, introduced by Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., in March. The Energy and Commerce Committee and House Agriculture Committee worked together to update the language and circulated the latest discussion draft last week. Language that preempts state laws requiring mandatory labels on food made with genetically engineered (GE) crops is unchanged.
John Reifsteck, president of GROWMARK Inc., an agricultural co-cop, and a witness at the hearing, insisted the nation needs a national framework, because a “hodgepodge of rules would be unworkable for farmers and their cooperatives.”
The bill also includes a provision that would require 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.
During the hearing, Pompeo noted that the revised bill also “ensures that every new GE plant destined for the nation’s food supply goes through FDA’s safety review.”
According to the bill, 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, certifying that there are no further concerns relative to the safety of that trait.
However, Greg Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, noted that the FDA process only ensures that the agency “has no further questions” about the developer’s safety review. “The bill would only codify the current process,” he said. “It doesn’t require FDA to provide its opinion on GE crop safety.”
He said this means the public is relying on a company, like Monsanto, for safety determinations. “This may not be an issue of actual safety,” he noted, “But it is an issue of perception.”
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Another witness, Val Giddings, senior fellow at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, asserted that FDA still has the absolute authority to require that all food on the market is safe. “It doesn’t matter what process they use,” he said.
Giddings further said the concept of branding something as “GMO” is meaningless, since all foods have been genetically modified from their original state. “GM [genetic modification] is a process, it is not a product,” he said.
While there was general agreement at the hearing that biotech foods are safe, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., argued for the citizens’ “right to know” that a product is derived from genetic engineering.
“If they’re so safe, why would anyone be afraid of labeling those products?” he said, echoing the sentiments of the Vermont-based Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company, which promotes its products as non-GMO.
Vermont passed a mandatory GMO labeling law for most food products last year. It is scheduled for implementation in 2016 and is being challenged in court by food companies.
Vermont’s Assistant Attorney General Todd Daloz, also a witness at the hearing, did not question the safety of biotechnology, but said his state’s law “will allow citizens worried about the environmental impact of GE foods to adjust their purchasing decisions.”
However, witness Rick Blasgen, CEO of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, said complying with Vermont’s law “really is a nightmare” for food manufacturers. He said if a company decides to continue selling a GE product in Vermont without reformulating the ingredients, it requires the creation of a new, additional SKU -- a unique identifying number -- for the product. It also means segregating these products throughout the supply chain.
Most Democrats on the panel support Pompeo’s bill, including Rep. Kurt Schrader, an organic farmer from Oregon.
He said organic farmers and legislators “spent a lot of time trying to ensure” that the USDA certified-organic label “meant something.” The Pompeo bill would do the same for non-GMO products, he maintained.
According to the proposed bill, 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.
Claire Parker, a spokesperson for the Coalition for Safe, Affordable Food — which includes food companies and agricultural groups — said the hearing “is the latest indication that the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act is gaining momentum and is headed towards passage this year.
While support for Pompeo’s bill may seem favorable in the House, the Senate has not made any progress on the issue. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is developing similar legislation for the chamber although it's not clear when or if such a bill can get a hearing.
The Environmental Working Group, which dubs Pompeo’s bill as the DARK (Denying Americans the Right to Know) Act, said in a statement that with this bill, Pompeo “is doubling down on his 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.”
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