WASHINGTON, Sept. 28, 2016 - USDA has set a December deadline to put together a comprehensive list of still unanswered questions related to the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard and to present that list to the public for feedback, Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Elanor Starmer said in an interview.

There are a lot of questions that Congress left unresolved when it passed the GMO labeling legislation in July, and AMS wants to know what the public is thinking before the agency begins to put together a proposed rule, Starmer said.

Often agencies will start out with a proposed rule and then accept public comment for a couple of months before issuing a final rule. In this case, Starmer said, AMS will be publishing an advance notice of proposed rule-making (ANPR).

“It’s not a rule, but basically a way to solicit public input before we even get to the point of a proposal,” she said. “What that allows us to do – with some of these really sticky questions – is have an additional round of public input. It’s an opportunity for people to weigh in on what (the rule) should look like before we even put out the first proposal.”

Will highly processed soybean oil have to be labeled as containing genetically modified ingredients because it was made from genetically modified soybeans? What will the symbol look like that food companies can opt for on packages that denote the presence of GMOs?

Those are just a couple of the more than 30 open issues that AMS will be taking to the public in the ANPR, according to government officials.

Some of the more controversial questions, such as whether or not soybean oil, refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup need labels, may be the last to be answered, but progress is already being made on other issues.

For example, AMS officials are already drawing up potential new symbols that could be used to show a food product has genetically engineered ingredients. Options for labeling in the law include a quick reader (QR) code, plain text stating GMOs may be present, or a symbol.

“We have an internal team that’s working on mockups based on common best practices,” Starmer said.

When the ANPR is published, she said, it will include several symbol designs that are certain to generate plenty of responses. It won’t be a vote to determine the most popular, but AMS will rely heavily on public opinion when it whittles down the options to just one. 

The agency is also planning to hold a series of listening sessions around the country to get additional public feedback, Starmer said, allowing consumers to express themselves directly to agency officials.

“Our goal is to get through the end of the (Obama) administration having laid out where we think we want to start on these issues and then put the proposed rule together next year and provide another opportunity then for people to (comment),” Starmer said.

One question the public won’t be able to help out with is whether USDA will get the money it needs from Congress to hold the listening sessions and cover other expenses connected with putting together the rule.

Starmer said AMS was hoping Congress would include such funding in the continuing resolution being discussed to keep the government running beyond Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year ends. “That is looking less likely now,” she said. The CR would fund the government through Dec. 9, by which time Congress is expected to pass an omnibus appropriations bill.

Starmer said she is now hoping the funds will be included in the omnibus. The agency could move forward with its plans so long as it knows the funds will be included, she said.

“We can get things started as long as there’s an indication that funding is forthcoming, but that’s when they actually do pass the budget,” she said. “What we are looking for from Congress right now is a signal that the funding will be made available. We’re hoping to receive it.”

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday that there’s still plenty of time to convince lawmakers that the money is needed, but he also said he worries about falling behind in getting the work done. 

“I think it’s important for us to figure out a way to get this thing started so that we don’t slip on the timeline that is important to meet in order for us to meet the deadline set by Congress to get (the final rule) in place within two years.”


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