JANUARY 22, 2004
 12:40 PM
Richard Caplan 202-546-9707
USDA's Announced Biotech Regulation Update Raises Concerns

WASHINGTON - January 22 - Today's announcement of plans to update the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) biotech regulations is a welcome admission that the agency's status quo is insufficient. While offering some improvements, the vision outlined by USDA raises several troubling issues.

The National Research Council (NRC) issued a report on Tuesday warning USDA of the inadequacy of current biological confinement of genetically engineered organisms. Just two days later, instead of implementing NRC's recommendations to control the spread of unapproved varieties of biotech crops, the department is considering the exact opposite approach--tolerating failure.

USDA indicated that it might allow low-level contamination of food crops by unapproved biotech varieties to enter the U.S. food supply. The agency claims it will only grant exemptions from regulation when low-level contamination occurs in spite of good agricultural practices. But good agricultural practices should not result in violations of federal regulations and the contamination of the food supply.

Lowering the bar to accommodate sloppy compliance with regulation is unacceptable and has no place in any plan to strengthen USDA regulation of biotech crops.

Another serious concern raised by today's announcement is USDA's decision to not improve regulation of already approved biotech crops. With their 2002 report on transgenic plants, the National Research Council cautioned that post-commercialization monitoring should be used to validate deregulation decisions, a recommendation that has yet to be implemented. USDA's unfortunate and unwise decision is in conflict with the National Research Council recommendations.

Updating USDA biotech regulations is a significant undertaking for which U.S. PIRG commends the Agency. We look forward to working with USDA to improve their current regulations, and will participate in the planned public hearings and meetings that the USDA announced would be a part of this effort. It is essential that while USDA makes this effort to take steps forward to strengthen their regulations, the agency does not simultaneously take steps back.