WASHINGTON, Oct. 21, 2015 - Federal regulators defended the safety of biotech foods at a congressional hearing today as senators prepared the groundwork for moving a compromise bill to block states from requiring labels on GMO products. 

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow, who is playing a leading role in negotiations on a compromise bill, announced that she hoped to have the legislation passed by the Senate before the end of the year. 

“I share the concern about the difficulty in doing business across our country if 50 different states have 50 different standards and requirements. Frankly it just won’t work,” the Michigan senator said Wednesday as the Agriculture Committee opened its first hearing on agricultural biotechnology in a decade

Stabenow laid out some broad priorities for the legislation but didn’t get into details. Sources told Agri-Pulse that the negotiations have grown more serious recently because of food industry concerns about a Vermont labeling law that takes effect next summer. The discussions are said to include requiring companies to provide information about GMO ingredients in product bar codes. A House-passed bill (HR 1599) would block state labeling laws but also wouldn't require disclosure via bar codes.

Stabenow said the Senate bill would have to provide “a national system of disclosure and transparency” that “does not stigmatize biotechnology.” She also said it would have to “address legitimate concerns from our farmers, our food companies and consumers.”

The committee used Wednesday's hearing to make the case for the safety of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the adequacy of existing regulations. 

Susan Mayne, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said her agency’s pre-market review of new GMOs was thorough and consistent and that biotech crops were as safe as those produced through conventional breeding methods. FDA’s pre-market review is voluntary, but no company has taken a product to market without completing the process, she said. 

Even so, the Obama administration recently launched a broad review of its entire regulatory process for biotechnology, known as the “coordinated frame,”  The review will include evaluating how the agencies should treat new methods of altering crops that don’t involve moving genes from one species to another. 

The review process will include a series of public meetings, the first of which FDA will host next week, and outside analysis, the agency officials emphasized. 

The goal is “to provide clarity to the regulatory process, to encourage innovation, while managing risks,” Mayne said. 

The Senate hearing highlighted what some consider loopholes in the existing regulatory process. For example, while FDA reviews the safety studies done by developers of GMO traits, the agency doesn’t issue an opinion on whether the products are safe. Under questioning by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Mayne said that’s because the agency doesn’t do the safety studies itself. 

“It’s ultimately industry’s responsibility to assure the safety of that product ... We review the science, we review the data to make sure that we have no further questions about the safety," she said. “If we were having to attest to that safety specifically, then that would shift some of that burden to FDA with obvious resource implications.”

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Greg Jaffe, biotechnology director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, said any labeling bill Congress passes should require FDA to start issuing safety opinions and also mandate that companies submit products to FDA review. Although Mayne said no company has failed to cooperate so far, the time may come when companies in China or elsewhere may attempt to ship biotech foods to the United States without doing so, Jaffe said. 

Requiring FDA to render safety opinions also would provide assurance to other countries about the safety of new biotech products, potentially accelerating overseas approvals, he said. 

The leader of the pro-labeling coalition, Gary Hirshberg, told reporters after the hearing that he he was open to “technology being part of” a new labeling standard. 

But Hirshberg, chairman of the Just Label It campaign and organic dairy giant Stonyfield Farm Inc., said it would be difficult to make bar code technology accessible to all consumers. “Two words on an ingredient label is a lot easier to implement than getting into smart phones or QR codes,” he said, referring to a code that can be read by phones.  

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said the biotech industry faced a public relations challenge no matter what, noting that vaccines and pasteurization were two other types of technology that some consumers eschew. 

“All these technologies that have helped create more food, helped keep our food safe, are being challenged all the time,” she said.