First Senate Hearing to Discuss H.R. 1599

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The US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held its first hearing for the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599), on October 21 titled, “Agriculture Biotechnology: A Look at Federal Regulation and Stakeholder Perspectives.” The hearing had two panels, totaling eight witnesses, the first composed of individuals representing government agencies and the second composed of members of the food industry representing consumers and producers. The purpose of the hearing appears to have been to give the labeling debate context. During the first panel, witnesses discussed the role of federal agencies in the regulation of agricultural biotech (ie. GMOs). During the second panel, witnesses discussed the role of biotech in their businesses and expressed their concerns for or against mandatory labeling laws, particularly that of Vermont, which will go into effect on July 1, 2016. 

Gary Hirshberg, the co-founder, chairman and former CEO of Stonyfield Farm, testified before the committee as the Chairman of Just Label It, calling for transparency. Hirshberg said, “We strongly support a national GMO disclosure system that provides factual information. We do not support a warning or a disclosure system that renders a judgment on GMOs and are certainly not seeking a ban on GMO crops. Rather, we support a value-neutral disclosure that respects the right of consumers to make their own choices.”

H.R. 1599, which passed in the House of Representatives by of vote of 275-150 on July 23, would give companies the option of voluntarily label products which contain genetically modified ingredients. If passed into law, the act would also preempt any current mandatory labeling measures on the state level. The act essentially amends current laws, including the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C), Plant Protection Act and Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946, with the most striking change being the preemption of state laws. Dr. Susan Mayne, Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Health and Human Services, said in her testimony before the committee that despite the voluntary nature of the GMO consultation process set by the FD&C Act, “most, if not all, developers participate in this process and it provides for a rigorous food safety evaluation.”

According to the bill, FDA would only require labels on genetically engineered products were they to present a “material difference between the GMO food and a comparable food if the disclosure is necessary to protect public health and safety or to prevent the label from being false or misleading.” The presence of GMOs themselves do not constitute a material difference because of a 1992 Policy Statement in which FDA found no reason to conclude that genetically engineered foods differed meaningfully from other foods or posed any risk. It is the amendment to the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 that would require the Agricultural Marketing Service to establish a national genetically engineered certification program for those companies that volunteer transparency.

The hearing was strongly criticized by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), for the selection of its eight witnesses. Ronnie Cummins, the international director of OCA said in a statement following the hearing, “Today’s hearing on H.R. 1599 made a total mockery of democracy. Of the eight witnesses allowed to testify, only one could be remotely considered someone who represents the interests of consumers and public health. The other seven have ties to the biotech and corporate food industries, and were there to represent the interests of corporations, not people.”

For a full list of witnesses and their testimonies, visit http://www.ag.senate.gov/hearings/agriculture-biotechnology-a-look-at-federal-regulation-and-stakeholder-perspectives

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2015 (online 10/27/15)