High Court: UK Food Standards Agency Made GM Rice Mistakes

LONDON, UK, February 27, 2007 (ENS) - A High Court Judge has ruled that the UK Food Standards Agency did not act unlawfully by allowing genetically modified rice unapproved for human consumption to remain on the shelves of major grocery chains across Great Britain.

In a judicial review requested by Friends of the Earth, the judge did fault the agency for a number of mistakes, including its decision not to issue a food alert and the late provision of advice to local authorities.

In his ruling Thursday, the judge also said that public authorities such as the Food Standards Agency should be allowed to make mistakes without attracting legal sanction.


Long grain white rice grown in the United States has been mixed with low levels of biotech rice. How that occurred is still unclear. (Photo credit unknown)
The environmental group claimed the agency acted illegally by allowing long grain rice mixed with Bayer CropScience's LLRICE601, also known as Liberty Link® rice, to be sold instead of ordering stores to remove it.

The biotech rice, altered to tolerate the Bayer Liberty® herbicide glufosinate, was found in Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Somerfield.

Friends of the Earth GM Campaigner Clare Oxborrow said, "These mistakes meant that local authorities, the public and retailers were not given information about which rice products were found to be contaminated with illegal GM ingredients."


Friends of the Earth GM Campaigner Clare Oxborrow (Photo courtesy Global Vision Consulting Ltd)
On August 18 last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that the illegal GM rice strain, grown experimentally in the United States but unapproved for human consumption, had been found in long grain rice supplies destined for export. It was sent to several countries, including the United Kingdom.

At the High Court hearing, Friends of the Earth presented evidence that the biotech rice was on sale in the UK more than two months after the Food Standards Agency claimed it had been withdrawn from the market.

On September 1, 2006 the Food Standards Agency Director of Food Safety Dr. Andrew Wadge said, "The presence of this GM material in rice on sale in the UK is illegal under European food law, even at extremely low levels. This is why we are taking steps to test American long grain rice and ensure future imports are GM free."

But on the same day Dr. Wadge also said, "Our independent scientific experts have looked at the data on this material and have concluded that there is no food safety risk. Therefore the agency is advising people who have long grain rice from the U.S. at home that they can continue to eat it."

He placed the blame on grocers, saying, "Food retailers are responsible for ensuring that the food they sell does not contain unauthorized GM material."

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, but none were issued in this case because the grocers did not withdraw the products.

Five days after the contamination was revealed, the European Commission put in place emergency legal measures to deal with the incident. All long grain rice imported from the United States had to have a certificate stating that it was free of LLRICE601 before it could be marketed in Europe.

EU member states also were required to take action in relation to products already on the market, such as rice imported into the EU before the contamination came to light, in order to "verify the absence of genetically modified rice LL RICE 601."

It is this second point where Friends of the Earth believes the Food Standards Agency failed to act, and this formed the central issue for the judicial review.

Chair of the UK Food Standards Agency Dame Deirdre Hutton is also vice chair of the European Food Safety Authority.

In deciding not to order stores to withdraw the biotech rice, the UK agency relied 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."

After the High Court ruling, the agency promised to carry out an internal review of how it handled the LLRICE601 rice situation and to take the criticisms of the judge to heart.

Oxborrow said the agency "must make sure that this review is open and honest and that the mistakes made are not repeated in the future."

Following an incident in Rotterdam, where a shipment of long grain rice tested positive for LLRICE601 by Dutch authorities after holding a certificate saying it was GM-free, the European Commission tightened the legislation to require counter testing of all U.S. long grain rice by EU member states at the port of entry. The discrepancy occurred because a more sensitive test is used in Europe than in the United States.

This counter testing emergency measure is still in place.

Neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, nor Bayer CropScience, can explain how this unapproved biotech rice got into the food chain and an investigation by U.S. authorities is ongoing.

Trace amounts of LLRICE601 were first discovered by the Agricultural Center of Louisiana State University, which conducted some field research on the variety.


Rice altered for resistance to Liberty herbicide in a test plot at Louisiana State University. All rows were sprayed with Liberty herbicide. The green rows are LLRICE601; the dead row is nontransgenic rice. (Photo by M.C."Chuck" Rush courtesy LSU Ag Center)
In the United States, several multi-million dollar class action lawsuits and several individual lawsuits have been filed against Bayer by U.S. farmers who have suffered severe financial losses.

Bayer applied for the LLRICE601 genetically modified rice to be legalized, or deregulated, in the United States. Although the USDA approved the deregulation on November 24, 2006, the rice is still illegal in Europe.

On November 24, 2006, Bayer CropScience said in a statement, "The deregulation confirms the preliminary decision of USDA, published on September 8, 2006, that LLRICE601 does not pose any environmental concerns and should no longer be regulated."

Friends of the Earth said the company applied for deregulation "in an attempt to limit liability."

Bayer CropScience said the company submitted LLRICE601 for deregulation "as part of the company’s ongoing cooperation with USDA after traces of the herbicide-tolerant rice were found at very low levels in samples of commercial long-grain rice. The company does not intend to commercialize LLRICE601."