WASHINGTON, July 20, 2016 - The Agriculture Department is gearing up to implement national GMO disclosure standards following last week’s overwhelming 306-117 vote that sent the legislation to President Obama for his signature. No date has been set for Obama to sign the bill, and critics of biotechnology, including Jesse Jackson, have been calling on the president to veto it. But his signature is a foregone conclusion, and USDA has already formed a task force to begin work on the rule it’s supposed to finalize within two years after the bill’s enactment.
Supporters of the bill who want the USDA to interpret the law as narrowly as possible can be encouraged that a leading critic of the industry, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), believes the standards won’t cover many food ingredients and crop traits. The group, which opposes the bill, has filed numerous lawsuits over the years to challenge USDA’s approval of genetically engineered traits.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, CFS’s senior scientist and director of sustainable agriculture, believes USDA has grounds for exempting ingredients such as vegetable oils and starches from the standards. Many crops also may be excluded, depending on the way they were engineered and the trait itself, he says. He believes USDA’s general counsel was “blowing smoke” when the official argued in a to the Senate that the bill gave the department the authority to include a broad array of ingredients and traits under the standards.
At issue is the bill’s definition of “bioengineered” foods. According to the bill, the foods subject to disclosure must contain “genetic material” that has been modified through recombinant DNA techniques. A second part of the definition says that the crop modification “could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” The Food and Drug Administration argued in its comments on the bill that the requirement for genetic material would exclude vegetable oils, starches and purified proteins from the standards. The agency said it also may be hard to prove many traits couldn’t be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.
“Clearly, there are things that they (USDA) will be able to call bioengineered food,” but “you’re not going to find genetic material, which usually means nucleic acid, in oils and most other highly refined foods. Just chemically, they’re refined out,” Gurian-Sherman said.
He said the rest of the definition appears written to limit the disclosure requirement for transgenic traits that require inserting a gene or genes from one species into another.
Wayne Parrott, a professor of plant breeding and genomics at the University of Georgia, agrees that many food ingredients would be exempt from the disclosure standards. In that sense, the law is similar to labeling requirements in Japan and Australia, he said.
“There’s not a laboratory on the planet that can tell the difference between oil from a GM (genetically modified) soybean and a conventional soybean. There’s absolutely no way that you can enforce truth in labeling.”
But USDA’s implementation of the second part of the definition – whether a crop trait could be achieved by conventional breeding or is found in nature – could be problematic for plant breeders, depending on how USDA carries it out, according to Parrott.
USDA could write regulations that require each crop modification to be assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine whether it’s subject to the disclosure law. The regulations would be much easier to administer if USDA instead spells out in the rule which categories of crop modifications would be subject to disclosure and which ones wouldn’t be, according to Parrott. That way plant breeders would know ahead of time whether a particular technique and trait would be exempt from disclosure.
Even with unanswered questions about how USDA will implement the legislation, the bill will still benefit plant breeders by ensuring that states can no longer require on-package GMO labeling, he said. The first such law took effect July 1 in Vermont.
Before the congressional action, “we were headed toward a patchwork of state laws, many of them completely unrealistic, completely unscientific. It would be impossible for a food company to get anything to the market at a reasonable cost,” Parrott said.
USDA could be sued over the final rule, depending on how the regulations come out. But Gurian-Sherman says food and agribusiness companies may be less concerned about the outcome of the regulations than labeling advocates such as his group, since the bill allows the option of digital disclosure rather than on-package labeling. “There’s less incentive for companies to sue … because they know QR codes are not an effective way for people to know what’s in their food,” he said.
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