U.S. supplies of long grain rice have been contaminated with a genetically modified variety not approved for human consumption, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said late Friday. The secretary said he learned about the contamination from the company that engineered the rice, Bayer CropScience, and could say nothing about how the contamination arose.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Food and Drug Administration have been notified by Bayer CropScience that the company has detected trace amounts of regulated genetically engineered rice in samples taken from commercial long grain rice," Johanns told reporters. "Both have reviewed the available scientific data and concluded that there are no human health, food safety, or environmental concerns associated with this GE rice."
The rice variety, called LLRICE 601, is engineered with DNA that makes the plants resistant to an herbicide manufactured by the agricultural corporation Aventis.
Bayer has developed many genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant products with the protein called Liberty Link, three of which are rice, Johanns explained.
Two deregulated lines, LLRICE 62 and LLRICE 06, have been through thorough safety evaluations and have been deemed safe for use in food and safe in the environment, although these lines have not been commercialized, Johanns said.
"Based on the available data and information, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has concluded that the presence of LLRICE 601 in the food and feed supply poses no safety concerns. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) also conducted a risk assessment, which indicates LLRICE 601 is safe in the environment.
Bayer officials said the company is "cooperating closely" with federal agencies. Officials said the company had no plans to market LLRICE 601 and therefore had not requested deregulation. Based on reports that LLRICE 601 is in the marketplace and a petition from Bayer, APHIS will conduct a deregulation process, including an opportunity for public comment.
"Because the line of GE rice in question was regulated, APHIS is conducting an investigation to determine the circumstances surrounding the release and whether any violations of USDA regulations occurred," Johanns said.
"The protein found in LLRICE 601 is approved for use in other products. It has been repeatedly and thoroughly scientifically reviewed and used safely in food and feed, cultivation, import and breeding in the United States, as well as nearly a dozen other countries around the world," Johanns said.
The secretary admitted that the discovery of genetic contamination could impact rice exports, worth nearly $1 billion a year. Many U.S. trading partners have policies forbidding import of some genetically engineered foods, whether or not they are approved by the United States.
Since 1987, APHIS has deregulated more than 70 GE crop lines and in the last decade U.S. farmers have planted biotech varieties engineered mainly for herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, and enhanced quality traits.
Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group in Washington, says this incident is "another example of how this biotechnology industry continues to act irresponsibly."
In Europe, Bayer has applied for the import of a similar GM rice called LL62 meant for human consumption. The German Coalition against Bayer Dangers, which has been monitoring the company for 25 years, is urging the European Food Safety Authority not to approve LL62. The coalition warns that approval of this modified rice would pose unknown risks for human health and the environment.
s Coalition spokesman Philipp Mimkes said, "We call for the stringent application of the precautionary principle with regard to GM rice. The incident in the U.S. shows that risks linked with modified crops can't be controlled in the long term."
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