8 September 2006


Japan and the European Union imposed restrictions on long-grain rice imports from the United States after Washington announced on 18 August that its commercial rice supplies had been contaminated by trace amounts of a genetically-engineered (GE) variety of rice not approved for human consumption. Bayer CropScience, the producer of the GE rice - LLRICE601- informed the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that traces of the rice had been detected among its traditional rice crops on 31 July.

The rice contains a protein that makes it resistant to weed killer. According to a statement by the company "the protein is well known to regulators and has been confirmed safe for food and feed use … in many countries, including the EU, Japan, Mexico, the US and Canada." Bayer reportedly discovered the contamination in January 2006, six months before informing the government.

The USDA and FDA have stated that there are no human health, food safety, or environmental concerns associated with the rice. They have also acknowledged that they have no idea which state the rice came from or how widespread the contamination might be.

In a radio interview, USDA Secretary Mike Johanns indicated that the US delayed its announcement of the rice contamination for two reasons -- to have "a couple of tests validated or in the process of validation" for its trading partners and others, and "to offer, based upon the information that was provided to us by Bayer, an indication as to food safety, public health, environment."

Japan acts swiftly and the EC follows suit

Japan, which has a zero-tolerance policy on GE rice, imposed a ban on the rice almost immediately. However, Japanese officials said that the country's imports were concentrated in short- and medium-grained rice, which were not included in the ban.

According to one source, a spokesperson for the Japanese embassy said that the restriction would likely remain "until the US can say the rice no longer contains the genetically- engineered variety."

On 23 August, the European Commission decided to require that imports of long-grain rice from the US be certified as LLRICE601-free, following testing by an accredited laboratory using validated testing.

"There is no flexibility for unauthorised [genetically modified organisms] -- these cannot enter the EU food and feed chain under any circumstances," said Markos Kyprianou, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection.

In 2005, Japan and the EC banned maize imports as a result of another GE contamination. The ban is still in place.

Angry Reactions

Bayer is now facing three lawsuits filed by rice farmers in the US, two of which are seeking class action status. The USD 1.9 billion per year industry, on the verge of harvest, is facing falling prices and uncertainty about the marketability of future crops.

"This is real money that farmers are losing," said Greg Yielding of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association.

Greenpeace International has called for a ban on all GE rice. "Rice is the world's most important staple food and contamination of rice supplies by Bayer, a company pushing its GE rice around the world, must be stopped," said Jeremy Tager, Greenpeace International campaigner.

On 5 September, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth announced that GE rice grown in China was discovered in Britain, France and Germany. "Once illegal GE crops are in the food chain, removing them takes enormous effort and cost. It is easier to prevent contamination in the first place," said Tager.

Regulatory Concerns

Earlier this year, the WTO ruled that the EC's approval processes for the marketing of biotech products violated the requirement to "complete individual procedures without undue delay" between 1996 and 2004, when no new products were cleared. It also sided with the complainants -- the US, Canada, and Argentina -- in condemning several EC member countries' national-level bans on GE products ruled safe by European scientific experts (See BRIDGES Trade Biores, 17 February 2006 and BRIDGES Trade Biores 19 May 2006).

Following the rice contamination, however, several observers have raised questions about the strength of US regulation of biotechnology. The USDA has reportedly approved applications for some 49,000 field site tests for GE crops. At the same time, an audit released by the USDA Inspector General in December 2005 stated that the department "lacks basic information about the field test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown and what becomes of them at the end of the field test."

"You absolutely should be in compliance with regulations," said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, who directs the University of California's system-wide biotechnology programme. "It's incumbent on the companies, on the USDA… to ensure that everybody complies with these regulations."

European Member of Parliament Jill Evans stated "the fact that Bayer knew about it months before disclosing this means we can't rely on the information and tests they give us." She called the contamination "very serious," adding that it undermined the EC's confidence in the US regulatory system.

"US Under Pressure over Genetically Modified Rice," FINANCIAL TIMES (22 August 2006); "US Rice Supply Contaminated," Rick Weis, WASHINGTON POST (19 August 2006); "Japan Halts Import of US Long-Grain Rice," ASSOCIATED PRESS (21 August 2006); "Japan Bans 'Contaminated' US Rice," BBC NEWS (21 August 2006); "Bayer Faces More Lawsuits over GMO Rice," REUTERS (29 August 2006); "Analysis -- US Oversight of Biotech Crops Seen Lacking," Carey Gillam, Reuters (30 August 2006); "Gene-altered Rice from China Found in EU," REUTERS (5 September 2006); "When Genetically Modified Plants go Wild," Gregory M. Lamb, THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR (31 August 2006); "Bayer Kept Rice Problem a Secret," WESTERN MAIL (29 August 2006)

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