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House Agriculture Subcommittee Seeks Answers from the Agricultural Marketing Service

June 26, 2015
On June 25, 2015, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research held a hearing to review the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Marketing Programs. Mr. Craig Morris, Deputy Administrator of Livestock Poultry and Seed Program of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) at the United States Department of Agriculture was the only witness to testify in front of the Subcommittee.

Specifically, Mr. Morris discussed some of the management system audits offered by the USDA in support of producer marketing programs. He stated that it is AMS’ mission is to facilitate the efficient, fair marketing of U.S. agricultural products, including food, fiber, and specialty crops. Morris mentioned that there are a family of user-fee-funded, audit based third-party verification programs and services available to the agricultural industry under its Quality Systems Verification Programs (QSVP). These programs are designed to provide suppliers the opportunity to assure customers of their ability to provide consistent quality products or services. Under a QSVP, a supplier's documented quality management system is verified through independent third-party audits conducted by qualified AMS staff. The majority of Morris’ testimony focused on the audit programs within the umbrella of QSVP.

He concluded by testifying that “audit-based services support the ability of producers to make specific claims or to assure customers of their ability to provide consistent quality products or services. These claims can cover raising, feeding, handling, processing, labeling practices, or other practices and processes that differentiate a product. They do not establish that the claim is in conformance with applicable labeling requirements, nor do they establish any food safety standards.”

Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Davis (IL-13) opened his remarks by commenting that consumers are seeking more information about how different food products are produced. He noted that many consumers may already be familiar with food standards such as “USDA Certified Organic” but may not really know what goes into or gives meaning to these market-based claims.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Suzan DelBene (WA-1) opened her remarks with the notion that now more than ever people want to know more about where their food comes from. She argued that while it’s good for the consumer to have more information, we need to ensure that the information is easy to understand, easily accessible, and not misleading.

Georgia Representative Austin Scott (GA-8) geared his questions towards how AMS ensures these market-based claim programs are meeting their requirements. He then addressed the differences between mandatory and voluntary labeling programs.

Mr. Craig Morris responded by stating that AMS requires the company to develop a quality management program and then do onsite audits to ensure that they are meeting the requirements established. In case of the National Organic Program, Mr. Morris states that Congress gave AMS the authority to establish a standard to what meets an organic claim and then they were given the power to certify that companies are meeting these claims.

In regards to mandatory versus voluntary labeling, Mr. Morris testified that the U.S. marketing chain is very dynamic and a one-size-fits all model does not work. He stated that the purpose of the Process Verified Program (PVP) is to provide agricultural businesses with third-party, objective verification of a particular standard or marketing claim. USDA’s PVP assures buyers that the producer’s production processes supports specific marketing claims and are verified by an independent third-party audit conducted by AMS.

Representative Scott and Mr. Morris addressed the issue of cities and towns within a state establishing their own mandatory labeling requirements. Mr. Morris stated that he would get back to the subcommittee.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Suzan DelBene expressed concerns of utilizing resources to establish a new program. She also shared concerns of a non-GMO program certification conflicting with the national organic certification program.

Mr. Morris testified that the Process Verified Program is funded by user fees. He also testified that anything in the National Organic Program means that it excludes GMOs and any presence of GE ingredients.

Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern (MA-2) openly stated that if American consumers are demanding mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs then “why aren’t we answering this demand”. He stated a Mellman Poll displaying the increase in this demand. He also stated that he doesn’t believe that adding a label that says made with GMOs will increase the cost of groceries for consumers. He cited a New York Times myth piece which supported his claim.

Mr. Morris responded by saying that AMS carries out both voluntary (fee for service) and mandatory labeling programs. He stated that it is appropriate for companies to demand a premium for a product if it meets the voluntary labeling program requirements. He concluded by noting that AMS would do a cost base analysis on a mandatory GMO labeling program if needed.

See below The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food’s statement on today’s hearing:

House Ag Hearing Shows Merits of Voluntary GMO-free Certification Program

Contact: Claire Parker

Date: June 25, 2015

(Washington, D.C.) – The Coalition for Safe Affordable Food (CFSAF) applauded today’s hearing before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology that highlighted the benefits of legislation that creates a national GMO-free certification program overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The program, which will bring consistency and transparency to consumers across the country, is a key component of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act—bipartisan legislation introduced by Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC).  Today’s hearing demonstrated that the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act will give consumers the ability to buy GMO-free products without the costs associated with state mandates on GMO ingredients, which would raise food prices for all.

“The GMO-free certification provision makes this bill one of the most consumer-friendly, transparent food labeling initiatives introduced in Congress in some time,” said CFSAF spokesperson Claire Parker.

“The voluntary labeling standard created by this legislation is based on the very popular USDA National Organic Program,” Parker said. “Under the new program companies will be able to opt in—just like the organic program. The fact is that most packaged foods on store shelves today are made with GMOs ingredients. The best solution is to have a national standard for labeling GMO-free foods so consumers have relevant information.  Labeling something as GMO-free is consistent with labeling food that is gluten-free or free of some ingredient. We should label the exception, not the rule.  This is in line with existing labeling precedent and ensures that mandatory labeling is reserved for information that provides consumers health or nutritional data.”

Craig Morris, a deputy administrator at the USDA, testified Thursday that current voluntary labeling programs provide consumers useful, informative information.  Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Davis stated that the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act will bring uniformity to non-GMO labeling and noted that there are currently many misleading claims on the marketplace.

The hearing today follows last week’s House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing, which showcased the need for a uniform national standard for labeling foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) instead of a patchwork of varying state mandates. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act has a national, science-based standard for food labeling.  So far, the legislation has attracted 65 cosponsors since its March introduction, including 12 Democrats.

“Today’s hearing provided the opportunity to examine an important aspect of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, and continues the momentum behind this bill,” Parker continued.  “We look forward to the upcoming markups of the legislation and remain convinced this legislation will pass this year.”