UK Food Standards Agency Sued Over Bayer Transgenic Rice

LONDON, UK, February 21, 2007 (ENS) - Genetically modified rice unapproved for human consumption was on sale in the UK more than two months after the Food Standards Agency claimed it had been withdrawn from the market Friends of the Earth said Tuesday.

The discovery of the genetically modified rice, which may still be on sale in the UK, was presented on the first day of a court case brought by Friends of the Earth against the government agency over its failure to take adequate steps to protect consumers from eating the transgenic rice.

The incident is the most significant genetically modified, GM, food contamination episode to affect the United Kingdom, according to Friends of the Earth.

The legal challenge centers on the agency's failure to comply with an emergency EU law which instructed EU member states to remove unapproved genetically modified rice from the market.

The law was put in place after it was revealed in August 2006 that an experimental strain of GM rice - Bayer CropScience's LLRICE601, also known as Liberty Link® rice, had contaminated commercial rice supplies in the United States and been exported around the world.

On August 18, 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that LLRICE601 had contaminated commercial long grain rice, even though it had not been approved for commercial sale.

This contamination event prompted Japan to suspend long-grain rice imports from the United States and the European Union to impose strict controls.

In the UK, the genetically modified rice was found in Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Somerfield.


This bowl of rice on an English table might contain genetically modified grains unapproved for human consumption. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
The Food Standards Agency claims that by November 2006 there was no potentially contaminated U.S. long grain rice on the market in the UK.

But Friends of the Earth has provided evidence that such rice was widely available for sale in London convenience stores in late January 2007.

The Food Standards Agency has confirmed that four of the rice packages purchased by Friends of the Earth from three different London stores were from batches that were contaminated with the genetically modified rice.

LLRICE601 is a variety of long grain rice that has been altered with a bacterial gene that causes the crop to produce a protein that makes it resistant to the Liberty® herbicide glufosinate produced by Bayer.

Phil Michaels, Friends of the Earth's Head of Legal, said, "This experimental GM rice has not been licensed for human consumption in Europe. But the Food Standards Agency did not take adequate steps to prevent it being sold in the UK."

Friends of the Earth claims that the Food Standards Agency, "ignored potentially contaminated rice that reached the market since January 2006. Instead it focused on 'preventing any further GM-containing stocks entering the UK markets.'"

The environmental group accuses the agency of stating that the presence of genetically modified rice in the food chain "is not a health concern" despite the lack of scientific evidence to back up this position.

Relying on the judgement of the European Food Safety Authority that, "the consumption of imported long grain rice containing trace levels of LLRICE601 is not likely to pose an imminent safety concern to humans or animals," in a November 16, 2006 statement the UK agency said, "Safety experts have advised, on the basis of current evidence, that rice containing trace levels of this GM material is not likely to pose an imminent safety concern."


Dame Deirdre Hutton is chair of the UK Food Standards Agency and vice chair of the European Food Safety Authority. (Photo courtesy Cardiff University)
"However," said the agency, "its presence in food is illegal in the EU and the agency has reminded retailers of their legal responsibility to ensure that the rice they sell does not contain unauthorized GM material."

But, "based on the conclusion reached by safety experts," the agency advised consumers that "they can continue to eat long grain U.S. rice that they have at home."

In its lawsuit, Friends of the Earth alleges that the agency, "Met privately with the food industry and told them there was no need to withdraw any contaminated rice that they found, despite the fact that any presence of unapproved GM ingredients is illegal."

The Food Standards Agency usually issues a food alert when food companies withdraw products to alert consumers and local authorities when there are problems with food, however none were issued in this case.

"Early on in this incident, the FSA decided to do nothing about contaminated rice products sitting on our shelves," said Michaels. "We believe that the FSA has failed in its obligations to ensure that illegal GM rice was detected and removed from the market because it does not properly understand the approach to GM regulation that is required by European law."

"To justify its lack of action, the FSA relied on a consultant's model to estimate that contaminated rice would have been removed from the market after November," Michaels said. "However, the fact that such rice was on sale more than two months after they claimed it had been removed shows their modelling was seriously flawed."


QuickStix™ test kit detects LibertyLink® Rice. (Photo courtesy Envirologix)
Measures were introduced by the European Commission on August 23, 2006, to ensure that all imports of long grain rice from the United States are certified to be free of unauthorized genetically modified rice material before being allowed to enter the EU.

As an additional precaution, new rules were imposed to ensure that imports of U.S. long grain rice are retested at the point of entry into the EU.

Bayer CropScience said in August 2006, the "pre-commercial rice line" produces a protein "well known to regulators and has been confirmed safe for food and feed use in a number of crops by regulators in many countries, including the EU, Japan, Mexico, U.S. and Canada."

But LLRICE601 has not been approved for human consumption in the EU.

Friends of the Earth's GM Campaigner, Clare Oxborrow said, "We have resorted to legal action to ensure that if another GM contamination incident happens, the FSA takes robust action to ensure that illegal GM ingredients are kept off our plates."

The environmental group is urging the Food Standards Agency to conduct routine tests of food imports from countries growing experimental genetically modified crops to help prevent any more contamination incidents in the future.

In the United States, rice farmers have filed a class action lawsuit against Bayer CropScience for allowing LLRICE601 to contaminate other varieties of rice.