GREAT FALLS, Mont. (DTN) -- Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee asked federal agencies to do a better job explaining their decisions approving biotech crop traits as lawmakers set up arguments Wednesday to deal with growing challenges over biotech food labels.
The hearing in Washington, which was webcast, looked at the "coordinated framework" used by USDA, EPA and FDA to regulate biotech crops and foods. Though senators acknowledged there is a great deal of consumer interest and curiosity about biotech crops and foods, it was also noted that the Senate Ag Committee has not dealt with the topic in a decade.
"This is the first time in 10 years we've had a hearing on biotech. I guess we're a little late, but we're here," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the committee.
The driver behind Wednesday's hearing was Vermont's law set to go into effect next summer that will require labels for foods with ingredients from genetically modified crops. The House has passed a bill that would block states from creating such food labels and would only allow FDA to require labels for genetically engineered foods in cases when there is a material difference that would create a health risk. Republican senators on the Ag Committee have been trying to introduce a similar bill, but they have struggled to find Democratic co-sponsors to ensure passage.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the committee, said she believes the issue of biotech labeling "will only continue to build steam in the years ahead." She called on senators to work together in a bipartisan way by the end of the year to adopt legislation dealing with the potential risk of a 50-state patchwork of labeling laws. Any legislation also should be written "in a way that doesn't stigmatize biotechnology," Stabenow said.
"Biotechnology is proven to be safe, beneficial, and I believe will play a major role in helping to solve these dual global challenges of climate change and global food security," she said.
Michael Gregoire, associate administrator of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, told senators the agency has been working to reduce the time of its approval process. APHIS reviews biotech crops to ensure a new biotech trait doesn't cause a threat to plant health. If an organism doesn't cause a plant-pest risk, then APHIS deregulates it.
Since speeding up its approval process in 2012, APHIS has cleared 30 of 37 pending petitions and will approve three more by the end of the year. The time for review has been cut from three to five years down to 18 months, and APHIS is working to reduce that time to around 15 months.
Bill Jordan, deputy director of EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, explained that EPA administers laws to regulate pesticides, including biotech plants that express pesticide characteristics. Those are known as plant-incorporated protectants, or "PIPs." EPA has approved 86 such products, most of which produce toxins targeting insects. Jordan noted one of the benefits of PIPs is that they have reduced the broad application of pesticides by "many millions of pounds" in the environment. Still, Jordan noted that issues revolving around weed resistance are causing EPA to look at rules to protect the effectiveness of crop-incorporated protections.
The Food and Drug Administration, for its part, has looked at 150 different types of genetically modified foods. FDA is confident those foods are as safe as their conventional counterparts, said Susan Mayne, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at FDA. Due to the lack of difference between conventional and biotech foods, FDA has largely avoided the issue of labeling biotech crops.
"FDA has taken the position that the use of genetically engineering in the development of a food is and of itself not material information," Mayne said.
FDA recognizes consumers want to know this information, which is why the agency has issued guidance on voluntary labeling procedures for companies to use. But when it comes to mandatory labels, "It's not grounded in science or the basis of our authority," Mayne said.
Following an announcement over the summer by the White House, USDA, EPA and FDA are reexamining their framework for regulating biotech crops and foods. The agencies will start by holding the first of three public meetings starting at the end of October to examine what changes might be needed and see what technologies in the industry m ight be on the horizon.
SENATORS SEEK OPTIONS
Parts of Wednesday's hearing sounded like a broken record as senators repeatedly asked panelists from the three agencies to declare, define and spell out whether they each think biotech crops and food products are safe. All three regulators repeatedly made such declarations.
"We are very confident in the safety of the products we have reviewed through our regulatory process," USDA's Gregoire said, adding that biotech crops get more scrutiny than other crops.
Later in the hearing, EPA's Jordan noted, "We've looked at these products six ways to Wednesday."
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he was concerned that biotechnology oversight could become an area of "regulatory overreach" in the future. Moreover, one of the key problems with different state laws is that the commodity supply chain is not set up for the type of strict segregation to limit sales or label only in specific states.
"Our supply chains are much too complex to meet the needs of 50 different states," Thune said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., told the regulators they've done a poor job of explaining their decisions and the science so the public can understand it. She compared the controversy to issues surrounding vaccines. "What is it that we are not doing to make the information you provide more accessible to the average consumer so they understand?" Heitkamp said.
The issue raised by Heitkamp dovetailed into later discussions in the hearing when Dr. Ronald Kleinman, physician in chief at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, pointed out that at least some people polled about GMO safety are just as concerned about their food having DNA -- which is the building block for all life.
"That's the challenge. It's simplifying this in a way that explains to people that we have a safe food supply," Kleinman said.
Nonetheless, Gary Hirshberg, chairman and co-founder of the organic yogurt producer Stonyfield Farm, pointed out that organic food is now a $40 billion industry that continues to grow because consumers want to know how their food is grown. Hirshberg, chairman of the group "Just Label It," also cited that 64 countries already have biotech labels. While declaring the value of organics, Hirshberg maintained that Just Label It wants a "value-neutral disclosure" label.
"Our position is simple: Consumers have the right to know what is in their food and how it is grown -- the same right held by citizens in 64 nations. Recent polling and consumer data tell us that nine out of 10 Americans -- regardless of age, income, race or party affiliation -- want the right to know whether the food they eat and purchase for their families contains GMOs," Hirshberg said.
Countering Hirshberg's call for a label was Joanna Lidback, a first-generation Vermont dairy farmer who relies on genetically modified feed for her 50 Jersey cows. Lidback noted non-GMO protein feed can run $555 a ton compared to $305 for feed from biotech crops. For her operation, that would translate into paying an additional $48,000 a year buying non-GMO feed.
"I do not see how we could profitably farm in the long term with those increased feed costs, thus effectively pushing my small farm out of business," Lidback said.
Daryl Thomas, a senior vice president at the snack company Herr Foods, warned senators that "absent a federal solution by July 2016," companies such as Herr will either have to redesign packaging, reformulate their products or stop selling them in Vermont. His company sells 411 different products, so just changing all the labeling could cost as much as $2.2 million.
"GMO ingredients don't change the nutritional profile or the safety of our products," Thomas added.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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