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Friends of the Earth today (Monday) urged the UK Government to take action to restrict UK imports of American rice after it was revealed that supplies had been contaminated with an illegal genetically modified strain. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that GM rice unapproved for human consumption has entered the US food chain [1].

The extent of the contamination is not known, but the UK imported some 82,625 tonnes of rice from the United States in 2004 [2]. Friends of the Earth is calling on food safety authorities to take immediate action to protect the health of UK and European consumers.

The GM rice, produced by German-based biotechnology company Bayer, was field tested between 1998 and 2001 but the contamination of commercial long grain rice has only just come to light.

Friends of the Earth's GM Campaigner Clare Oxborrow said:

"This is a complete scandal. The biotech industry has failed once again to control its products and lax regulations in the US mean that consumers have been put at risk".

"Bayer and the US Authorities must now explain how this has happened and release all available safety data to reveal what the risks are for consumers. They must also urgently investigate the full extent of the contamination of US food supplies and of exports. Here in the UK, the Food Standards Agency must act to protect UK consumers from this potential threat by banning US rice imports until it is clear that they are safe."

Bayer's GM rice, LLRICE601, has not been approved in the US or in Europe and has not undergone any official assessments to determine its health or environmental impact. It is engineered to withstand application of the herbicide glufosinate. According to Bayer the GM rice "is present in some samples of commercial rice seed at low levels" even though field-testing ended five years ago. Bayer informed the USDA of the contamination on 31 July 2006.

Bayer claims it is not intending to commercialise LLRICE601. But because it is now "in the marketplace" as a result of accidental contamination, the company has applied to the US Authorities for approval, effectively limiting liability on the company for the incident.

Friends of the Earth have called for an immediate investigation by authorities in the US and Europe into the full extent of the contamination. The environmental campaign group is also demanding that:

  • Bayer immediately releases all the necessary information on the safety testing and detection methods for LLRICE601 into the public domain

  • The European Commission and UK Foods Standards Agency bans US rice imports (following the example of Japan [3]) and issues product recalls for all foods containing rice from the US.

This latest case of GM contamination echoes the Bt10 scandal, revealed in March last year, where biotech company Syngenta sold the wrong GM seed to US farmers for four years. Maize exports to Europe were contaminated with the illegal maize, and the European Commission put in place emergency measures to prevent maize contaminated with Bt10 being imported into the EU. These measures are still in place [4].

GM rice is not grown commercially but field trials are taking place in a number of countries. Bayer is seeking approval to import a similar rice variety, which has approval to be grown in the US, into the EU and South Africa for food use.

In the UK, the Government is consulting on how GM and non-GM crops can `coexist' in England [5]. It is vital that the Government takes into account evidence of how the US has failed to control GM contamination in determining the rules needed to allow GM crops to be grown in the UK.

Notes

[1] The announcement was made late on Friday 18 August in the US.
www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usdahome?contentidonly= ¬
true&contentid=2006/08/0307.xml

[2] Source: HM Customs & Excise, data prepared by Trade Statistics, Food Chain Analysis 3, DEFRA. The UK imported 82,625 tonnes of rice from the USA in 2004

[3] www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/business/4128520.html

[4] www.foe.co.uk/resource/press_releases/ ¬
europe_restricts_us_maize_15042005.html

[5] See www.stopgmcontamination.org

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Published by Friends of the Earth Trust