WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The Food and Drug Administration has sent the Senate Agriculture Committee technical comments on the genetically modified food labeling bill that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have developed in an attempt to preempt state labeling laws, including a Vermont law that goes into effect on Friday.
The technical comments surfaced as both sides in the labeling debate are making arguments to the Senate on whether the bill should be passed. Even if the Senate acts this week before going into recess, which seems unlikely, the bill cannot become law before the Vermont law goes into effect because the House is in recess until Tuesday.
The FDA noted that the bill would give USDA labeling authority in an area that is usually reserved for the FDA and that FDA has long held that foods developed with genetic engineering are safe and do not require labeling.
But the FDA also said that:
-- Provisions to allow information regarding the GE (genetically engineered) content of food to be presented only in an electronically accessible form and not on the package label would be in tension with FDA's statute and regulations, which require disclosures on food labels.
-- The definition of "bioengineering" would result in a somewhat narrow scope of coverage because it leaves out food without genetic material, which means that oil made from genetically engineered soybeans would not be covered.
-- It appears that the intent is to have the bill apply to all foods except those that are essentially meat, poultry, or eggs, and that the drafters may have assumed, incorrectly, that products covered by the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, or the Egg Products Inspection Act are not covered by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
-- Language regarding exceptions and inclusions is unclear.
FDA did not address the rights of states to label foods for genetic modification.
The FDA did not release the technical comments to the media, but they surfaced Wednesday on Politico and were sent to reporters by the Center for Food Safety.
An FDA spokeswoman told DTN, "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not taken a position on the bill."
"The FDA, similar to other federal agencies, provides technical assistance on draft legislation at the request of Congress. The FDA does not comment on its interactions with Congress.
"In reference to this draft legislation, the FDA defers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on its interpretation of the legislation since the legislation would ultimately be implemented by USDA. The FDA will work with USDA and other federal partners to help implement legislation enacted by Congress," the FDA spokeswoman said.
The Center for Food Safety, which opposes the bill, said Wednesday that the FDA comments show that the bill would exempt most foods containing genetically modified ingredients.
"The FDA critique makes it very clear that this is really a non-labeling bill disguised as a labeling bill, Andrew Kimbrell, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety, said in a news release.
"Its very definition excludes vast numbers of, and potentially all, GMO products from labeling. Preempting the democratically decided upon laws of five states based on this poorly written, discriminatory and ineffective legislation would be a travesty. A bill of this importance merits hearings, expert testimony and thorough legal analysis, not the 'backroom dealing' that created this deeply flawed draft. As it stands, this bill is a sham and a legislative embarrassment."
A spokesperson for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "Chairman Roberts and ranking member Stabenow have worked hard to reach a consensus for how a unified, national system could work, and we are appreciative of their efforts."
"The draft legislation should help to avoid a patchwork of state regulations that may confuse consumers and increase food costs," the spokesperson said. "USDA looks forward to continuing to work with Congress to provide technical assistance upon request."
Stabenow told DTN in an email, "The agreement places the authority of implementing this national, mandatory GMO label squarely with the USDA because this is not a food safety or human health issue."
"In fact, I find it ironic that people who want limited labeling options would reference FDA comments, considering the FDA has repeatedly denied petitions to label foods with GMOs because they do not recognize them as potential risks to our health," Stabenow said.
"The bottom line is this: this agreement would provide the USDA with the authority to label everything that is on the grocery shelf that contains ingredients from GMO commodity crops like corn, soybeans, sugar, and canola that have gone through the USDA approval process, including highly refined sugars and oils, as well as food products derived from gene editing."
A spokeswoman for Roberts said the FDA comments were "odd and misplaced," The Des Moines Register reported in an article on the developments Wednesday.
The Coalition for Safe, Affordable Food, which has campaigned for the Stabenow-Roberts bill, did not respond to a request for comment.
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