Joint US-UK cover-up alleged over GM maize
Paul Brown, environment correspondent
The Guardian, April 1, 2005
The whereabouts of 170,000 tonnes of contaminated GM maize and its possible import into the UK has caused an international investigation and claims of a cover-up on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) first put out a statement saying the contamination was "on a small scale" but later retracted it, instead saying the maize was unlikely to have got into food but might have been fed to cattle.
The maize is not licensed to be grown in Europe and contains a GM antibiotic-resistant marker of a type scientists have advised the EU to phase out. It is theoretically possible for bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics as a result of contact with the marker genes - although the company which developed the maize, Syngenta, denies it.
The row intensified yesterday because it was realised that the US administration had known of the contamination since December, but did not notify Britain until late last month when an article in Nature revealed the problem.
One GM maize, BT10, not licensed for Europe, was found to have been mixed up with another GM maize, BT11, which was licensed. The two varieties produce the same proteins, which led Syngenta and the US watchdogs, the food and drug administration and the environment protection agency, to claim there was no problem; the two crops were the same.
It was a line that Defra followed until it was realised that BT10 contained the suspect antibiotic marker. This caused anti-GM groups to claim a cover-up by the company and the US administration.
Markus Payer, a spokesman for Syngenta in Switzerland, said yesterday that 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares) of the suspect seed had been grown unknowingly in the US between 2001 and 2004. It appeared BT10 seed had been planted in the belief it was the licensed BT11. As a result the harvested crops were mixed and sold. This was not discovered until routine tests in December 2004 revealed BT10's DNA sequence.
A Syngenta spokesman said 150,000 tonnes would have been marketed but it believed only a tiny amount reached Europe. Only 18% of US maize was exported and less than 1% came to Europe. He conceded that, before 2004, GM maize destined for Europe was not labelled, so it would be impossible to know where it had gone. The company and the US authorities were investigating and would notify all concerned as soon as possible.
Lindsay Keenan, a Greenpeace campaigner, said: "It is unbelievable that Syngenta, after four months of preparation for releasing this information, should say that these GE crops are physically identical ... This case exposes the basic unpredictability of GMOs [genetically modified organisms], the incompetence of Syngenta to handle GMO seeds safely, the complete lack of regulatory controls in the US, and the lack of implementation of controls in the EU."
The European Food Safety Authority, which advises EU states, said marker genes conferring resistance to ampicillin "should be restricted to field trials and not be present in GM plants placed on the market". And the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international food standards body, has urged the agricultural biotech industry to use alternative methods to refine GM strains in the future.
Brian John, of GM Free Wales, accused the US authorities and the British government of trying to cover up the problem. "Nobody, either in the government or in the food safety agencies, appears to be doing anything."
Defra said it believed only a small amount of the maize may have been imported, and was unlikely to be in food, only cattle feed. There was no danger to the public.