WASHINGTON, Aug. 24, 2016 - USDA doesn’t have the manpower or funds yet to complete the federal rule for the GMO disclosure law, but the department is doing what it can as quickly as it can, according to government officials.

The Agriculture Marketing Service is the agency in charge of writing the rule to implement the law and it already has a dedicated staff for the task – economists, lawyers, policy experts – but it’s also pulling in resources from other agencies to help as part of a department-wide working group that meets once a week.

“You’ll start to see here pretty quickly some ticking off the boxes of the to-do list,” said one government source. “We’ll have actions that come out from (the Food Safety Inspection Service) and we’ve got a policy memo we’re working on with the National Organic Program right now, so there’s a whole host of work that’s getting done already.”

By statute, USDA has two years to complete a final rule to fully implement the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, but there is only a little more than five months left for the Obama administration. Officials say that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants to get as much done as possible by Dec. 31.

“We’re looking at the budget and staffing implications,” Vilsack said Tuesday, but also stressed that he is pushing to get a lot done. “It’s a little early to say how much we’ll get done, but my hope is we establish a very strong foundation and framework so that (we will make) many of the more intricate and difficult decisions … so that the next administration won’t have to be faced with making those decisions.”

Vilsack knows the GMO disclosure law intimately because he helped write it, often brokering negotiations between Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and the panel’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow. But the changeover to a new administration and new leadership at USDA could put a major drag on the process.

Chuck Conner, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives CEO who also co-chairs the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, says the quicker the USDA can work, the better the rule will be.

“I would love to see Secretary Vilsack finish this off because he’s well-versed in all of the tricky details that made this legislation a two-and-a-half-year process,” Conner said. “So if there is a new team that comes in and has work to do, certainly there will be some getting up to speed associated with that.”

USDA’s biggest task in writing the rule may be deciding whether highly refined products like beet sugar, soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup would need to be labeled because they are derived from genetically modified plants.

USDA officials have already gotten an earful on the issue from the makers of those products.  Department sources say it’s also an issue they are hoping to tie up before January.

Industry officials say it would be unscientific to require disclosure on highly refined products because virtually all of the added genetic material from the original corn, soybean or sugar beet seeds has been stripped away during processing.

“At this time the department is not on a path to propose a regulation that would require (highly refined commodities) … to require disclosure,” one government source said. “That is not what we’re on a path to do. We’re looking for input on whether or not that should be in the proposed rule.”

USDA plans to give the public plenty of opportunities to weigh in. Several public listening sessions are being planned, with dates and locations yet to be decided, sources said. The department also is planning to set up an 800 number for comments and a public reading room to make available documents used in the rule-making.

The opportunity for public comment and USDA’s ability to address concerns will be very important, Conner said.

“This will generate tens of thousands of comments and USDA has to be very methodical and respond to each one of those comments or else they’re opening themselves to potential litigation,” he said. “It’s a heavy task ahead of them.”

Another challenge for USDA will be to make sure that the quick reader (QR) technology proposed by Congress will be feasible when it comes to allowing shoppers to scan food labels to find out if products contain genetically modified ingredients.

USDA has a year to do this and the department has already begun the process of choosing a company to conduct a feasibility study.

Under the law, makers of food products that need some sort of GMO disclosure will have the choice among a QR code, a symbol or just plain text.  USDA already has a graphics team developing proposals for a symbol, sources said.


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