USDA's Role in Biotech Labels

Fri. Jun 26, 2015 2:25 PM

By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The House Agriculture Committee Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research Subcommittee held a hearing Thursday that was clearly intended to emphasize the role that USDA can play in biotech labeling, a question that now is in the hands of the Food and Drug Administration.

The only witness was Craig Morris, deputy administrator of the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service Livestock and Seed Program, who provided an overview of AMS programs that facilitate the marketing of U.S. agricultural products.

But Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., the subcommittee chairman, noted at the end of the hearing that Morris showed that USDA has "the capability and resources to provide valuable oversight of these voluntary marketing claims."

Davis also noted that the Agriculture Committee will soon consider a substitute amendment to H.R. 1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act originally authored by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. That bill, Davis said, "will bring clarity and stability to the marketplace through national uniformity regarding marketing claims for products grown using the latest agricultural production technologies."

The House Agriculture Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee jointly crafted the substitute amendment to the bill, which is "intended to enhance coordination between the FDA and USDA, strengthen confidence in the safety of genetically engineered foods, and provide additional transparency and consumer confidence through a public website listing non-regulated genetically engineered plants and petitions submitted to and determinations made by USDA and FDA," Davis said.

House Energy and Commerce last week held a hearing focused on the substitute amendment, Davis noted.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., the subcommittee ranking member, gave a more neutral opening statement.

"Within a relatively short time period, we have witnessed consumers rapidly move from having little interest in a diverse variety of products and where their food comes from to today's consumer seeing food as exciting with cooking now part of personal discovery," DelBene said.

"It is within this newly developed 'foodie' culture that U.S. production agriculture now finds itself," she added.

"Like most market evolutions, there is both good news and not-so-good news. The good news is food entrepreneurs, both producers and processors, have an increasingly diverse consumer base for which to tailor their products. The not-so-good news is an ever-growing and potentially confusing array of production, processing and questions."

"As the committee exercises its responsibility in the area of marketing and labeling claims across the board, but including labels related to genetically engineered crops, it's critical that we all have a full understanding of the expertise that exists within AMS should Congress choose to move forward with any sort of new label," DelBene said.

In his testimony, Morris noted that AMS has a process verified program (PVP) which provides agricultural businesses with third-party, objective verification of a particular standard or marketing claim.

But he also noted, "The claims on food products associated with PVPs, like all food labeling claims, fall under the jurisdiction of either USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration."

"AMS' sole focus is auditing whether a subject firm followed the process it described in its PVP application," Morris said. "AMS approval of a PVP does not mean that the labeling of food produced using the process necessarily meets the regulatory requirements for food labeling enforced by FSIS and FDA."

Morris explained that AMS has approved a PVP for a company wishing to obtain third-party verification for a marketing claim that its products are 99.1% non-genetically engineered, which the company is using as a basis for labeling the product as "Non-GMO/GE Process Verified."

Under this new program, Morris said, AMS verifies that the processes and procedures are in place to support a claim that food-grade corn and soybeans sold under the program are at least 99.1% free of traits that indicate genetic engineering.

This means that after AMS approval, the company can use the USDA Process Verified shield on labels or marketing materials for food-grade soybeans and corn coming from the approved facility. These foods will not themselves be labeled for or sold directly to consumers.

But Morris told the subcommittee "it is important to point out what this program does not do."

"First, this does not establish an approved claim for food safety nor does it establish a standard for food safety.

"Second, this is not a USDA marketing claim standard. USDA has not established a standard for what merits a marketing claim concerning the presence or absence of genetically engineered components in food regulated by USDA.

"Moreover, such a food-labeling claim for plant-derived foods would fall within the regulatory purview of the FDA," he said.

Davis said in a concluding statement that, "It is clear from the testimony provided today that we have the tools and expertise through the Agricultural Marketing Service to provide consumers with the information they want in a manner that supports interstate commerce."

"I am confident that with the USDA's current process and the legislation under consideration, we can establish a national, uniform, and voluntary marketing approach that will benefit consumers."

(AG)

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