GMO rice found safe, but trade still fettered
By Missy Ryan
REUTERS, November 28 2006

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators' latest move to sanction a strain of biotech rice may do little to soothe lingering doubts about the oversight of genetically modified foods destined for export markets, analysts and industry groups said this week.

"This is just a question of reputation," said Steve Suppan, a senior policy analyst for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. If exporters can't guarantee the crops they sell to other countries are GMO-free, "what is that going to do to the overall ability of U.S. rice exporters?"

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that LLRICE601, a strain of genetically modified rice made by Bayer CropScience, was safe for the environment and could be grown and sold without government oversight.

USDA's ruling comes three months after the rice, which was never destined for supermarkets but somehow made its way into the food chain, was found in commercial bins in the United States and later in shipments to European countries.

At least nine countries in Europe -- where consumers are usually more wary of genetically modified products which some have dubbed "Frankenfoods" -- have discovered LLRICE601 in shipments of long-grain rice from the United States.

The findings prompted the European Union to slap tighter testing rules on U.S. rice -- effectively halting U.S. exports worth $97 million a year. Other nations, like Japan, Korea and Russia, likewise stepped up tests for the rice.

But even more troubles could lie ahead, trade analysts say, as increased production of biotech products bring out the difference in countries' approaches to regulating those goods.

"We have zero tolerance in the EU for this. It shouldn't be on the shelf," said Canice Nolan, who heads food safety for the European Commission's delegation to the United States.  

Suppan said skepticism about the safety of U.S. rice could easily seep into consumers' beliefs about other crops.

The Bayer rice case is not the first time genetically modified food has made its way into the world marketplace. In 2001, for example, a biotech corn called StarLink, which was approved only for animals, was found in the food chain.

"In the EU and others, there's a great deal of consumer resistance to GMO foods ... We're not really looking very deeply at what the concerns of our trading partners are," said Joe Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety.

Some analysts say the U.S. process for approving biotech goods -- with USDA overseeing environmental safety and the Food and Drug Administration looking at human health considerations -- is fractured, calling it lax and unwieldy.

FDA hasn't formally evaluated LLRICE601. But the agency did rule out health risks earlier this year, saying it's safe because it is so similar to other, sanctioned GMO rice.

LLRICE601 is different from traditional rice because it contains a protein called LibertyLink, which makes it resistant to a herbicide used to kill weeds.

The United States might counter marketing problems by helping shape a new international process for harmonizing food and crop safety rules, some crop experts said, perhaps through the Rome-based food safety body Codex Alimentarius.

Until that happens, "people have to grapple with this in a way as not to disrupt trade," said Charlotte Hebebrand, president of the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council.  

According to Nolan, European officials will review the stepped-up testing rules for U.S. rice in January.

If U.S. crops continue to be held up by concerns about contamination, other countries could try to fill that gap. Thailand, the world's biggest rice exporter, has said it hopes to increase sales to Europe. It does not permit GMO crops.

Rachel Iadiciccio, a spokeswoman for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that the agency was still investigating whether Bayer had broken any rules by letting the GMO rice seep out into the food supply.

Bayer, a division of Bayer AG (BAYG.DE: Quote, Profile, Research), is being sued by a number of farmers seeking damages. Company spokesman Greg Coffey said it is doing all it can to cooperate with USDA.