UPDATE 3-USDA probes Nebraska biotech crop contamination
Wednesday November 13, 6:31 pm ET
By Randy Fabi
(Adds ProdiGene CEO, new throughout)
WASHINGTON, Nov 13 (Reuters) - The U.S. government said on Wednesday 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 trying to 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. (NYSE:DOW - News) and Monsanto Co. (NYSE:MON - News) 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)