Aug. 24, 2006 – Last week, the US Department of Agriculture announced that US commercial long-grain rice supplies are contaminated with "trace amounts" of genetically engineered rice unapproved for human consumption.
The genetically engineered (GE) rice is known as Liberty Link (LL) 601. Its genetic code has been modified to provide resistance to herbicides and is illegal for marketing to humans because it has not undergone environmental and health impact reviews by the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). LL601 was field-tested from 1998 to 2001 under permits granted by the USDA, but Bayer Corp Science, the developer of the experimental rice, did not seek commercial approval for it.
The contamination was only disclosed after Bayer notified the USDA itself. Currently, the government relies on self-reporting from food companies to determine genetically engineered (GE) contamination, rather than a federal testing system. The USDA dismissed concerns that companies may not always "self-report" or even be aware of their mistakes, which would lead to further undetected contamination of unapproved GE food.
It appears a separate company first detected the contamination in January of this year and that Bayer may have known about the contamination since May. But the government was not notified until July 31. It took another 18 days for the USDA to tell the public.
The GE contamination was only disclosed after Bayer Crop Science, the developer of the rice, notified the USDA itself.
At a press conference, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns would not divulge how the contamination had happened, or how far it had spread. It was unclear whether he even knew. Jim Rogers, a USDA spokesperson, told The NewStandard the contaminated rice was detected in barrels sent to Missouri and Arizona.
"But the rice could have come from anywhere [in the US]," Rogers said.
Riceland, a farmer-owned cooperative that markets rice produced by Southern farmers, issued a press release on August 18, saying it first discovered the contamination in January. Riceland conducted its own tests from several grain-storage locations and found: "A significant number tested positive for the Bayer trait. The positive results were geographically dispersed and random throughout the rice-growing area."
Riceland notified Bayer of the contamination in May, but did not notify the public or the government.
Johanns indicated that an economic motive was behind the governmentâ€™s delay of nearly three weeks before informing the public about the contamination, as the government anticipated foreign rice importers might reject the product. The Secretary said the USDA spent the time preparing tests for rice importers to check the product for contamination. The US constitutes about 12 percent of the worldâ€™s rice trade.
There are currently no plans to destroy or recall the rice, and Rogers is unsure if Bayer will be fined. While the government "validates" its tests for the rice, Johanns directed people to Bayerâ€™s website, saying the company "has made arrangements with private laboratories to run tests" on the rice.
â€œWe see this as an opportunity to get out the message that this is a radically new technology. These foods have not been tested and we donâ€™t know if theyâ€™re safe.â€
Although the field tests for LL601 ended in 2001, the contamination appeared in a 2005 harvest, leaving some food-safety advocates to worry that the contamination has been present for several years and suggesting that genetically modified strains can persist in the environment well after they have been discontinued in experiments.
Two other varieties of rice with the same gene and from the same company have already been approved for human consumption, though never marketed. There is currently no known, intentional commercial US production of genetically engineered rice.
Johanns said that based on "available scientific data" provided by Bayer, the USDA and the FDA have concluded "that there are no human-health, food-safety or environmental concerns associated with this GE rice."
When pressed about the health implications of the contaminated rice, Rogers noted that foods from pesticide- and herbicide-resistant crops are already on the market. In fact, according to the USDA, 70 percent of processed foods on grocery store shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients.
Rogers dismissed concern that, because the government relies on companiesâ€™ self-reporting, there could be widespread contamination of unapproved GE ingredients in the US food supply. He said the government did not have plans to begin testing food itself.
But this is not the first time unapproved genetic material has escaped detection in the food supply. In 2004, the company Syngenta admitted that for four years, it had sold unapproved GE maize in the US.
In response to the Bayer revelation, Greenpeace has called for a worldwide ban on imports of US rice. Already, Japan has suspended US rice imports.
The Center for Food Safety, a public-interest organization, is also calling for a moratorium on all new permits for open-air field testing of GE crops. The Center is concerned that open-air testing allows GE crops to cross pollinate with neighboring non-GE crops.
"We see this as an opportunity to get out the message that this is a radically new technology," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center. "These foods have not been tested, and we donâ€™t know if theyâ€™re safe."