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Biotech case worries food industry

(Friday, Nov. 15, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

s EMILY GERSEMA, Associated Press: The government's investigation of a biotechnology company has the food industry and environmental groups concerned that the biotech industry cannot be trusted to prevent the food supply from becoming contaminated with plant-made pharmaceuticals.

ProdiGene Inc., of College Station, Texas, may have broken laws when it failed to completely remove biotech corn from fields in Iowa and Nebraska before growing soybeans, the Agriculture Department said Thursday. Inspectors found stray corn plants growing in the fields.

The government ordered the company to burn the contaminated Iowa crop in September, and told ProdiGene on Wednesday to destroy the Nebraska crop, which has been quarantined at an elevator in Aurora, Neb.

ProdiGene makes pharmaceutical and industrial products by altering the genetic makeup of corn.

Until the government and companies have proved that those crops won't taint food, "we strongly urge the biotech industry to direct its substantial research capabilities into investigating the use of nonfood crops for the development of pharmaceuticals," said Karil Kochenderfer, director for new technologies at the Grocery Manufacturers of America. The group represents food companies nationwide.

Environmental groups said the government needs to toughen regulations and punish ProdiGene for the incidents.

"ProdiGene should certainly be punished for this reckless lapse, but let us not forget that the USDA has irresponsibly continued to allow drugs and industrial chemicals to be engineered into food crops," said Mark Helm, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth (news - web sites). "It has to stop."

ProdiGene CEO and President Anthony G. Laos has said the Iowa incident was resolved. He also said the biotech corn at issue contained DNA of a protein that wasn't toxic and is used to treat "persistent digestive health conditions."

But Jim Rogers, a USDA spokesman, said the Iowa and Nebraska incidents are being treated as one case.

Under the law, the government can order a violator to pay a fine that is twice the value of the damaged crops, or up to $500,000 for each case.

The Nebraska crop is valued at $2.7 million. The Agricultural Department did not have a value for the Iowa crop.

The case has dealt a blow to the biotech industry, a dozen of which had agreed last month to not grow genetically engineered corn for pharmaceutical development in states where it could contaminate neighboring fields planted with crops for human consumption.

ProdiGene was among those companies who adopted the self-imposed moratorium drafted by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a biotech trade group.

The organization wrote the policy without any knowledge about the government's investigation of ProdiGene, said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for BIO. It was drafted with the intention of gaining the public's trust in the industry, she said.

The incident has been compared to the StarLink incident of two years ago. StarLink was a corn variety approved solely for animal feed that contaminated taco shells. The scare prompted an expensive recovery effort.

The ProdiGene and StarLink incidents are not the same, though, Dry said.

"This was the antithesis of StarLink because with StarLink, it wasn't caught," she said, noting that the government was able to stop the contaminated soybeans from entering the food supply.

ProdiGene remains under investigation.