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2-Plants: Biotech firm mishandled corn in Iowa



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                                  PART I
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Biotech Firm Mishandled Corn in Iowa
SOURCE: The Washington Post, USA, by Justin Gillis
        http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/
        A51859-2002Nov13.html
DATE:   Nov 14, 2002

----------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html -----------------


Biotech Firm Mishandled Corn in Iowa

The biotechnology company accused of mishandling gene-altered corn in
Nebraska did the same thing in Iowa, the government disclosed yesterday. Fearing
that pollen from corn not approved for human consumption may have spread to
nearby fields of ordinary corn, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered 155
acres of Iowa corn pulled up in September and incinerated.

The disclosure raised new questions about the conduct of ProdiGene Inc., a
company in College Station, Tex., that is now under investigation for
allegedly violating government permits in two states. The ProdiGene matter is proving
to be a significant black eye for the biotech industry, which has been
trying to reassure the public it can be trusted not to contaminate the food
supply.

The new disclosure is also likely to have a political impact in Iowa, where
politicians of both parties have been attacking a new industry-sponsored
moratorium on planting genetically altered corn anywhere in the Midwest corn
belt. The ProdiGene case is an example of the kind of breakdown that moratorium
is meant to prevent.

Both the government and environmental groups have long been keeping watch on
ProdiGene, a small company pushing aggressively to turn corn plants into
mini-factories to produce protein-based pharmaceutical or industrial products.
ProdiGene is the only company to have entered commercial production of such a
protein, an enzyme called trypsin, and it is working on many others.

In neither Nebraska nor Iowa did gene-altered corn, nor soybeans growing in
the same fields, enter the food supply, the USDA said yesterday. Cindy Smith,
acting head of biotechnology regulation for the department, said that was
because government inspectors have been keeping a close eye on ProdiGene all
year.

"It wasn't luck" that inspectors caught the problems before any unapproved
products entered the food supply, she said. "It was planned luck."

She made it clear the government considers the violations significant and is
weighing serious penalties. In addition, she said the USDA may consider
revising its rules to lessen the chance of similar problems in the future.
ProdiGene maintained its silence on the issue last night. Since news of its
difficulties first surfaced Tuesday, the company has issued only a general statement
saying it would work with the USDA to correct unspecified "compliance
challenges." ProdiGene has been trying to negotiate a settlement with the
government.

Before the Iowa case was disclosed, environmental groups attacked the USDA
yesterday for its handling of a problem in which 500,000 bushels of Nebraska
soybeans got mixed with a small number of genetically modified corn plants,
calling the mixing a "gross failure" of the regulatory system designed to
protect the food supply.

Several groups assailed the government's refusal to identify the industrial
or pharmaceutical protein that may have been contained in the corn, saying
that even though the soybeans were intercepted before they reached the food
supply, the public still has a right to detailed information.

"There is a genetically engineered pharmaceutical or industrial chemical
that mistakenly entered into the grain supply, only one stop away from getting
into our food, and the government isn't talking," said Matt Rand,
biotechnology campaign manager for the National Environmental Trust. "The public has the
right to know what's going on."

It was unclear yesterday whether the corn involved in the Iowa and Nebraska
cases was the same variety, or whether they were different varieties designed
to produce two different proteins. The USDA and the Food and Drug
Administration have quarantined 500,000 bushels of soybeans at a grain warehouse in
Aurora, Neb. while deciding what to do.

About 500 bushels of soybeans, containing a small but detectable amount of
leaves and stalks from gene-altered corn plants, were mixed into the 500,000
bushels, compromising the whole lot. The USDA and the FDA have said the beans
will likely be destroyed or turned into fuel.

The biotechnology industry argues that work of this type can be done safely,
as long as strict guidelines are followed, but environmental groups argue
that human error is inevitable and the crops will eventually taint the food
supply. Most proteins are rapidly destroyed in the human digestive tract, but a
few can survive long enough to potentially cause health problems.

Members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington trade
group, recently agreed to stop planting in midwestern states any corn altered to
produce pharmaceutical or industrial proteins, and to stop planting canola
altered in a similar way on the Canadian prairie. Some Canadian biotech
companies don't belong to the trade group and have not endorsed the ban.

In both the Iowa and Nebraska cases, ProdiGene, or farmers working for the
company, grew test plots of gene-altered corn in 2001. Ordinary soybeans were
planted in the same fields in 2002, but a few corn seeds left over from the
year before sprouted. The company was required to ensure those corn plants
were removed before they could contaminate the soybeans or spread pollen to
nearby corn fields, but the company failed to do so, the government has said.

In the Iowa case, the gene-altered corn may have been spreading pollen at
the same time plants in nearby fields were receptive, raising the theoretical
possibility that genes unapproved for human or animal consumption could have
spread into ordinary field corn, the USDA said. Government inspectors
therefore ordered that 155 acres of nearby corn be uprooted and burned.

                                  PART II

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  USDA probes Nebraska biotech crop contamination
SOURCE: Reuters, by Randy Fabi
DATE:   Nov 15, 2002

----------------- archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html -----------------


USDA probes Nebraska biotech crop contamination

WASHINGTON - The U.S. government said this week it was investigating if
soybeans grown in a Nebraska field were accidentally contaminated by a biotech
corn variety engineered to produce an experimental type of insulin.

PRODIGENE Inc., a privately owned company that planted the corn, is among a
growing number of firms using crops to produce pharmaceuticals that can treat
diseases like diabetes. The U.S. Agriculture Department said it quarantined
about 500,000 bushels of soybeans, which may be destroyed as a safety
precaution. At issue is whether a tiny amount of ProdiGene biotech corn plants
sprouted in the same field this year where soybeans were grown last year. The
plants may have been mixed together when farm equipment harvested the crop last
month, the USDA said. Biotech corn grown for pharmaceutical use is not
approved for human or livestock feed.

Farmers routinely rotate soybean and corn crops in a field as a way to keep
the soil healthy and productive. Jim Rogers, spokesman for USDA's Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service, said the department was investigating
whether ProdiGene violated any federal regulations. USDA said it told ProdiGene to
remove any stray corn plants in its soybean field before harvest. "We saw
that a plant didn't belong and we asked them to remove it. In this case, it
wasn't removed," Rogers said.

Environmental groups and foodmakers expressed concern. "If a company cannot
be relied upon to perform such a simple task to keep pharm corn out of
soybeans, how can it be trusted in the far more complicated process of keeping
drugs out of corn flakes?" said Jane Rissler, senior scientist with the Union of
Concerned Scientists. It and other advocacy groups are demanding a one-year
halt on field tests of all pharmaceutical crops.

John Cady, president of the National Food Processors Association, called the
incident alarming and said it "very nearly placed the integrity of the food
supply in jeopardy." However, the Food and Drug Administration - which shares
authority over biotech crops with the USDA - said it was confident no
biotech corn made it into the U.S. food supply.

PRODIGENE, USDA IN TALKS

Anthony Laos, ProdiGene's chief executive, told Reuters he was working with
the USDA to determine how to dispose of the quarantined soybeans and to put
in better procedures in place for growing the bio-corn in the future.
ProdiGene's corn variety was engineered to make trypsin, a protein used in insulin.
After ProdiGene harvested its crop, USDA inspectors found the equivalent of
about one cup of stems and leaves from unknown corn plants mingled with the
soybeans. USDA immediately quarantined the soybeans and investigators are
tryingWto confirm if the corn residue is from the ProdiGene variety.

The news came just weeks after ProdiGene and other biotech companies agreed
to stop growing pharmaceutical crops in the Midwest and Plains states to ease
fears of accidental contamination. Texas-based ProdiGene and other firms are
experimenting with a new generation of biotech crops to produce proteins
from other plants, animals or humans to treat such diseases as cancer,
Parkinson's disease or AIDS. Dow Chemical Co. and Monsanto Co. are among companies
field testing new crops with the aim of commercializing them in three years.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization developed the new policy after grain
handlers and food processors expressed fears of another debacle like the one
over StarLink biotech. In September 2000, StarLink corn, approved only for
animal feed, was found mixed with corn used in human food. The finding sparked
a nationwide recall of corn chips and taco shells out of concerns that
StarLink may cause allergic reactions. U.S. exporters lost millions of dollars as
foreign customers briefly shunned U.S. crops.

Stephen Censky, head of the American Soybean Association, said he did not
think the latest problem would hurt U.S. shipments of soybeans abroad. "Our
view is that it shouldn't because very clearly (USDA) did take action," he said.
Censky said he did not believe any major soybean importers were rethinking
purchases of U.S. soybeans. (Additional reporting by Charles Abbott,
Christopher Doering and Richard Cowan in Washington).



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