Recall Urged for Illegal Biotech Corn
Bill Freese, Friends of the Earth, (301) 985-3011
Craig Culp, Center for Food Safety, (202) 547-9359;
Government Must Come Clean on Secret Dealings with Crop Developer, Say Groups
WASHINGTON — Environmental and food safety groups today demanded in a letter to the heads of three U.S. regulatory agencies that the government remove unapproved genetically engineered corn from the nation’s food and seed supply pending a thorough risk assessment. The groups also called for the public release of details surrounding the government’s secret dealings with the crop’s developer, Switzerland-based Sygnenta Seeds, Inc. The letter was delivered to Stephen Johnson, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lester Crawford, Acting Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and Michael Johanns, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture.
Several hundred tons of the unapproved Bt10 corn, enough to plant 37,000 acres, were mistakenly sold to U.S. farmers under the name of an approved variety from 2001 to 2004. The resultant harvest of an estimated 165,000 tons have been sold as food or feed in the U.S. and abroad. Syngenta first informed the U.S. government of the mix-up in December 2004, but federal regulatory officials did not inform the U.S. public that they were eating the untested corn until the story leaked four months later. U.S. trading partners were also kept in the dark about possible importation of the corn.
“The potential for yet undetected contamination of other corn varieties via cross-pollination or seed mix-ups means the unapproved corn could persist in the food supply for years,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist with Center for Food Safety and a former risk assessment scientist with EPA. “This happened because the U.S. regulatory agencies have not followed their own risk assessment procedures for allowing commercialization of genetically engineered foods.”
Although the U.S. agencies have claimed that the corn is safe, they have not conducted a full risk assessment as has been performed for all previous commercialized genetically engineered crops. “The regulatory agencies have accepted Syngenta’s uncorroborated assertions that contamination is not continuing, despite the hollowness of such assurances in the past,” added Gurian-Sherman. “If contamination continues, exposure of the public and environment, and the potential risks, would be higher than the agencies assume.” The errant corn is genetically engineered to produce a pesticidal toxin in its kernels and other tissues.
The EPA has claimed that the protein in Bt10 corn is the same as that in previously approved genetically engineered corn but has not disclosed the supporting data, contrary to previous risk assessments for genetically engineered foods. In addition, regulation of genetically engineered foods also typically includes risk assessments for environmental impacts and for so-called “unintended effects,” or unexpected changes in the crop that are known to occur with genetic engineering that may be harmful. Neither types of risk have been evaluated for Bt10.
“Syngenta’s genetically engineered Bt10 corn has not been tested or approved for human consumption anywhere in the world,” said Bill Freese, research analyst with Friends of the Earth and an expert on Bt crops. “Plants engineered to produce pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and hundreds of other untested compounds are being grown right now on tens of thousands of acres in the U.S., and our federal regulators seem unable or unwilling to control them.”
The prestigious science journal Nature, which broke the story in March, recently published a scathing editorial reflecting the furor aroused in Europe by Syngenta’s wrong-doing and the U.S. government’s lackadaisical response. The incident has aggravated tensions between the U.S. and European trading partners over controversial genetically engineered crops.
“One would think that given the skepticism over the safety of genetically engineered crops, the U.S. authorities would do everything in their power to ensure the safety of Bt10 rather than watering down the regulatory process,” remarked Joseph Mendelson, legal director of Center for Food Safety. “Shortchanging its own regulatory framework is no way to assure the public that genetically engineered foods are safe.”
The Groups are demanding that the U.S. regulatory agencies submit Bt10 to the full regulatory risk assessment that would usually be performed for genetically engineered crops, perform thorough testing of the corn seed supply to accurately determine the extent of contamination, and remove contaminated corn pending a complete risk assessment process.