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Biotech firm mishandled corn in Iowa

(Thursday, Nov. 14, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Justin Gillis, Washington Post: The biotechnology company that mishandled 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 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 also is 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 privately held 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, or soybeans growing in the same fields, enter the food supply, said Cindy Smith, acting head of biotechnology regulation for the USDA.

"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 department may consider revising its rules to lessen the chance of similar problems in the future.

ProdiGene has acknowledged only "compliance challenges," releasing few details. Anthony G. Laos, the company's president and chief executive, said in a statement last night that the Iowa situation had been "fully resolved to the complete satisfaction of the U.S. government."

Before the Iowa case was disclosed, environmental groups attacked USDA officials yesterday for their handling of a problem in which 500,000 bushels of Nebraska soybeans got mixed with a small number of genetically modified ProdiGene 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.

"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. USDA and FDA officials have said the beans probably will be destroyed or turned into fuel.

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. ProdiGene was required to ensure those corn plants were removed before they could contaminate the soybeans or spread pollen to nearby cornfields, 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.