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Ag department likely to tighten rules on biotech corn, official says

(Friday, Dec. 6, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- Phillip Brasher, Des Moines Register, 12/05/02: The Bush administration is likely to tighten its oversight of pharmaceutical crops to prevent them from contaminating the food supply, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Wednesday.

"We don't want to stifle growth (of the biotech industry) but we have to have a strong and credible regulatory system," she said.

Her department has been under heavy pressure from food processors to strengthen both planting restrictions and the monitoring of the biotech crops, primarily corn, which are bioengineered to produce vaccines and other pharmaceutical products.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization announced last month that its member companies would no longer grow the crops in Iowa and other areas of the Corn Belt.

However, the group ran into criticism from Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the incoming Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and on Tuesday backed off the ban.

The group said it would adhere to whatever restrictions are implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Veneman would not discuss specifics of what new regulations her department might impose. In August, the USDA proposed new guidelines for biotech companies that included a number of recommendations for keeping the crops out of the food supply.

Among the ideas: Alter the color of the biotech plant or leaf pattern, or grow corn for pharmaceutical or industrial use only in areas where corn is not grown for human or animal consumption. That proposal is similar to the policy jettisoned by the biotech group this week.

Veneman, speaking to a conference sponsored by the trade magazine Farm Journal, pledged that the department would take action against companies that violated its biotech regulations.

The USDA is threatening to fine one firm, ProdiGene Inc., for allegedly failing to manage former test sites in Iowa and Nebraska and has impounded 500,000 bushels of soybeans thought to be contaminated with bits of biotech corn plants.

A settlement with ProdiGene could be announced as early as today.

"We need to be sure we have the regulatory system in place so we don't undermine consumer confidence," Veneman said.

Trade groups representing the food industry were guarded Tuesday in their reaction to the biotech industry's decision to drop its ban on growing pharmaceutical corn in the Midwest.

But the groups said they will push the industry and the Bush administration to impose restrictions on the crops that will ensure they don't get into the food supply.

The companies do not want a repeat of the debacle two years ago involving StarLink corn, which resulted in massive food recalls when the unapproved grain was found in taco shells.

"Our position remains, there must be 100 percent assurance of containment. Period," said Jim Bair, vice president of the North American Millers Association.

Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association, which represents companies such as Campbell Soup and Kraft Foods, said her industry wanted a "100 percent guarantee" that the biotech crops won't contaminate the food supply.

The concerns of the food industry have not stopped biotech companies from pursuing new uses for the technology. Syngenta AG, a Swiss agrochemicals giant, announced a deal Wednesday with U.S. drug developer Diversa Corp. to speed development of plant-based drugs.

Syngenta executive David Lawrence said the alliance would keep the company on the industry's cutting edge.

Syngenta invests in Diversa; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1168