SAN FRANCISCO - Swiss biotechnology company Syngenta AG said Tuesday it mistakenly sold to farmers an experimental corn seed genetically engineered to resist bugs that was never approved by U.S. regulators.
Hundreds of tons of the resulting corn crop were shipped to consumers and overseas between 2001 and 2004, but three U.S. government agencies investigating said there was no health or environmental risk because of the seed's similarity to another Syngenta product approved for sale and consumption by federal regulators.
"While there are no safety concerns, the regulatory agencies are conducting investigations to determine the circumstances surrounding and extent of any violations of relevant laws and regulations," said Cynthia Bergman, an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman. "The U.S. government is also communicating with our major trading partners to ensure they understand there are no food safety or environmental concerns that could affect trade."
The Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration also are investigating.
Biotechnology critics say the incident confirms their fears that the industry can't ensure genetically engineered seeds won't mix with conventionally grown crops and contaminate the food supply.
Nearly half the nation's corn approved for market by the Department of Agriculture is genetically modified, but many consumers pay a premium for organic food or otherwise demand their groceries remain biotechnology free.
Also Tuesday, Syngenta acknowledged some of the unapproved corn may have been shipped overseas to countries that allow the company's approved genetically engineered corn in some form.
The company's approved genetically engineered corn seed is allowed to be sold in Canada, Argentina, Japan, South Africa, and Uruguay. Additionally, food and feed produced by the company's approved corn can be imported in the European Union, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, the Philippines, China, Russia, and Korea.
The United States and the European Union are in a bitter trade dispute over how to strictly to regulate U.S. biotechnology imports, but Syngenta spokeswoman Sarah Hull did not say whether any of its member countries have received the unapproved corn.
"Instead of building international confidence in genetic engineering, the industry continues to shoot itself in the foot," said Greg Jaffe, biotech director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington D.C. "It proves this technology is hard to control and we have an industry that is not as diligent as we would like."
The corn in question is spliced with bacteria genes to resist bugs without the need for pesticides.
It differs from Syngenta's approved seeds only where the foreign genetic material is placed in the plant's genome, said Jeff Stein, head of Syngenta's U.S. regulatory affairs.
Syngenta also did not say where in the United States the corn was grown, other than to say it sprouted on a total of 37,000 acres in four states - representing less than 1 percent of all U.S. corn. Still, the mislabeled corn amounted to several hundred tons shipped over the last four years.
In 2000, the inadvertent planting and distributing of genetically engineered corn not approved for human consumption - so-called StarLink - cost the food industry an estimated $1 billion in recalled products.
Hull said because the government has declared the corn poses no health or environmental risks, no recall of the wrongly shipped corn is planned. But all the plants involved have been destroyed, she said. She declined to say how much the incident is expected to cost the company.
Hull said the Swiss-based company discovered the mistake itself in mid-December and reported it immediately as required by law to federal authorities. She said Syngenta didn't publicize the mishap because of the ongoing investigation.
Agriculture Department spokesman Jim Rogers said the government had not wanted to publicize the problem until the investigation was completed.
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