Washington Post (pg. A7)  [Printer-friendly version]
August 19, 2006


Genetically Altered Variety Is Found in Long-Grain Rice

[Rachel's introduction: The U.S. rice supply has become contaminated
with a bacterial gene not approved for human consumption. The
contaminant is intended to make rice resistant to chemical weed

By Rick Weiss, Washington Post Staff Writer

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced late yesterday that U.S.
commercial supplies of long-grain rice had become inadvertently
contaminated with a genetically engineered variety not approved for
human consumption.

Johanns said the company that made the experimental rice, Bayer
CropScience of Monheim, Germany, had provided information to the
Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration indicating
that the rice poses no threats to human health or the environment.

"Based upon the information we have seen, this product is safe," he
said in a telephone news conference.

Johanns said he did not know where the contaminated rice was found or
how widespread it may be in the U.S. food supply. The agency first
learned about it from the company, he said, after it discovered "trace
amounts" during testing of commercial supplies.

The variety, known as LLRICE 601, is endowed with bacterial DNA that
makes rice plants resistant to a weedkiller made by the agricultural
giant Aventis.

Johanns said Bayer had not finished the process of getting LLRICE 601
approved for marketing before dropping the project years ago. But the
company did complete the process for two other varieties of rice with
the same gene. And although neither of those were marketed, he said,
their approval offers reassurance that 601 is probably safe, too.

Bayer said in a statement it is "cooperating closely" with the
government on the discovery. It added that the protein conferring
herbicide tolerance "is well known to regulators and has been
confirmed safe for food and feed use in a number of crops by
regulators in many countries, including the EU, Japan, Mexico, U.S.
and Canada."

Johanns acknowledged that the discovery could have a significant
impact on rice sales -- especially exports, which are worth close to
$1 billion a year. Many U.S. trading partners have strict policies
forbidding importation of certain genetically engineered foods, even
if they are approved in the United States.

Those restrictions reflect a mix of science-based fears that some
gene-altered foods or seeds may pose health or environmental hazards;
cultural beliefs about food purity; and political wrangling over trade

If other countries cut off imports, the political and economic impact
could rival or exceed that of the last such major event -- the
discovery in 2000 that the U.S. corn supply had become contaminated
with StarLink corn. StarLink, which was engineered to be insect-
resistant, was approved for use in animal feed but not for humans
because of its potential to trigger allergic reactions.

The StarLink episode led to the recall of hundreds of products and the
destruction of corn crops on hundreds of thousands of acres. There
have been several smaller incidents requiring similar actions since.

Yesterday's announcement quickly prompted a new round of accusations
that the government is failing in its efforts to regulate and contain
the burgeoning field of agricultural biotechnology, in which genes
from various organisms are added to crops and other plants -- usually
to confer resistance to weedkillers or to make the plants produce
their own insecticides.

"How many incidents will it take before the government takes their
oversight of the biotech industry seriously?" asked Gregory Jaffe,
director of the biotechnology project at the District-based Center for
Science in the Public Interest. "It's reassuring that in this instance
there is no safety risk, but I don't think that justifies the
industry's blatant violation of government regulations."

Johanns said Bayer contacted the USDA about the problem on July 31,
but the agency delayed announcing the finding until it had developed a
test it could share with trading partners and others who might want to
check for contamination. That test is now available.

Although Bayer stopped field tests of LLRICE 601 in 2001, the
contamination appeared in the 2005 harvest, Johanns said -- a detail
that Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at
the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, found "alarming."

"It's more evidence to me that all of these things that have been
getting tested ultimately have a route to the food supply," Mellon

Although agency investigations are underway, both Johanns and Robert
Brackett of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
said they do not anticipate recalls, crop destruction or other
regulatory action.

"If we become aware of any new information to suggest that food or
feed is unsafe, we will take action," Johanns said.

Instead, Johanns said, Bayer now plans to resurrect its effort to get
the product approved -- or in government parlance, "deregulated" -- a
move that would make the contamination issue moot in the domestic

Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 The Washington Post Company