By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 6, 2007
More than 14 months after the Agriculture Department began an investigation into how the U.S. supply of long-grain rice became tainted with an unapproved genetically engineered variety -- an event that continues to disrupt U.S. exports -- the government announced yesterday that it could not figure out how the contamination happened.
Agency officials said documents from several years ago that might have helped them determine what went wrong had been lost or destroyed, though not in violation of any record-keeping regulations. Lacking clear evidence of who was responsible, they said, the government will not take enforcement action against any person or entity, including Bayer CropScience, the company whose gene-altered products slipped into the food supply.
"The exact mechanism for the introductions could not be determined," Cindy Smith, administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), said in a news media teleconference yesterday afternoon.
The widespread, low-level contamination with experimental genes that make the rice pesticide-tolerant, one of several such events in recent years, prompted countries around the world to cut off imports of U.S. long-grain rice. Rice prices plummeted, and many farmers, scientists and biotechnology activists called for an overhaul of the oversight system for gene-altered crops.
While some countries have begun to accept U.S. rice with added testing, the European Union and Russia have not -- a trade loss valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The investigation, by APHIS and the department's Office of the Inspector General, consumed more than 8,500 staff hours and included site visits to more than 45 locations in 11 states and Puerto Rico, Smith said. The results were posted yesterday on the Web in an eight-page document, most of which is a review of previously reported background material.
APHIS also released a four-page "Lessons Learned" document, which suggests, among other things, that it may be wise for the government to start requiring companies to keep maps and other records on when and where they plant their experimental crops.
In a brief statement released yesterday, Bayer's U.S. unit, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., said it was pleased that the government had finished its investigation "without concluding that Bayer CropScience violated any legal requirement." The company also commended the government for affirming that the genes pose no health threat.
But critics assailed the report as yet more evidence that the nation's regulatory system for gene-altered crops is broken.
"This underlines the anxiety people have about more such incidents occurring," said Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based advocacy group that has called for a more rigorous approval process for biotech crops. "After all this investigation, there is no reason to think there are not more of these genes out there just waiting to be discovered."
The USDA report notes in passing that, during its investigation, it discovered seven instances in which unapproved gene-altered crops were either planted outside the time periods allowed under their permits or were not harvested and destroyed within the required timeframes.
In their primary investigation, officials determined that between 1998 and 2001 one of Bayer's then-experimental rice varieties, called LL601, had been planted in close proximity to conventional "Cheniere" rice plants being raised for seed production at a Louisiana State University field station in Crowley. Pollen from LL601 may have fertilized the Cheniere. Inadvertent mixing of the two kinds of grains may also have been a factor.
However, lacking maps showing where specific crops were grown and lacking records on whether workers cleaned machinery between batches as required, the story is opaque, officials said.
A second contamination event, involving a Bayer gene called LL604, was probably the result of inadvertent mixing rather than cross-pollination because LL604 appears never to have been grown near the conventional "Clearfield 131" variety that got tainted.
Agriculture officials returned yesterday from Brussels where they briefed officials of the E.U.'s European Commission on the latest findings and sought to sketch out a mutually agreeable system of testing that could allow U.S. exports to resume. A preliminary readout from the commission is expected with the next week or so.
Domestically, the USDA has proposed rule changes to speed the approvals of low-risk biotech crops while adding requirements for others.