Feds to Examine Biotech Rules

Ag White House Orders Review of Regulatory Framework on Biotechnology

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Ag groups in recent years have complained about the growing amount of time it takes for USDA, FDA and EPA to sign off on new biotech traits. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer file photo by Jim Patrico)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The White House on Thursday announced a one-year plan to update federal regulations overseeing the biotechnology industry.

In a memo to USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, the White House stated that a review of biotech regulations was needed to ensure public confidence in the regulatory system, improve transparency and prevent unnecessary barriers to future innovations. The overhaul in regulations would focus on biotech crops, animals and microbes, but would avoid re-examining rules for biotech products in the medical field.

The memo places a heavy emphasis on improving transparency, which led the Environmental Working Group to issue a news release declaring the announcement "is a foundation for building a more transparent food system that includes mandatory GMO labeling."

With the announcement coming on an afternoon just before a federal holiday, agricultural groups were slow to react. Still, the decision to reopen and revisit the rules involving biotechnology approvals will draw intense interest from a broad array of interests in the coming months.

Ag groups in recent years have complained about the growing amount of time it takes for USDA, FDA and EPA to sign off on a new biotech trait, while environmental and anti-biotech groups have frequently turned to the courts to slow down approvals by requiring agencies to study a variety of different environmental or health issues.

The memo focuses more on ensuring the best science is used to protect the health and environment and ensuring a transparent, coordinated regulatory system. But the memo also stresses an emphasis on ensuring public confidence in biotech production.

Nonetheless, such a focus on changing the rules surrounding biotech regulations will lead to a major push regarding whether labels are needed for foods with ingredients derived from biotech crops.

Congress is faced with dueling pieces of legislation on the topic. One bill, supported by most major farm organizations and food processors, would create a voluntary non-biotech label and only require labels for foods if they contain an ingredient from a biotech crop that affects health. A separate bill would require all foods with ingredients from biotech crops to be labeled.

EPA, FDA and USDA will form a biotechnology working group to update the framework for biotechnology regulations and further clarify which agency has oversight over particular product areas and rules for approving new products. The departments also will examine whether the regulatory system is equipped to fully assess the risks associated with new products with the goals of protecting public health and the environment, as well as supporting private innovation.

The working group will have a long list of priorities to address to ensure regulations still apply "a risk-based, scientifically sound approach to regulating the products of biotechnology."

The White House noted that the framework for biotechnology regulations was created in 1986 to spell out each agency's responsibility in overseeing approval of biotech products. The regulations were updated in 1992 to further clarify how biotech products are introduced and approved.

The White House also posted a blog on the topic and a link to the letter sent to the EPA, FDA and USDA department chiefs.

The National Academies of Science already has been conducting an analysis on possible regulatory changes to biotech crops that the academy began last year.

To read the White House blog, visit: https://www.whitehouse.gov/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton