Concern is growing that unapproved genetically engineered crops could find their way into the food chain. Industry experts say it's time for a wake-up call and stress the importance of better monitoring practices
'Contamination of one crop can cause a widespread problem that can't be tracked or recalled' 'The number of inspections and audits conducted by federal and state inspectors has gone down due to decreasing budgets' By Joy LePree
STATISTICAL SOUP Whether products such as LLRICE 601 are called genetically engineered foods, genetically modified organism foods, biotech foods, or even Frankenstein foods, you can certainly call them controversial. According to the USDA, genetic engineering is a method used to introduce new traits into plants and animals by moving genes and other genetic elements from one or more organisms into another. "For example, while it was never commercialized, a fish gene was spliced into a tomato gene to create a frost-resistant tomato," explains Maria Beug-Deeb, president of T&M Associates. "Genes could also be spliced into animals. You are basically splicing totally different species together that would never, ever in nature naturally cross." Modified crops currently consumed for food, fiber, or feed in the U.S. include corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, and squash. In 2006, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, 61 percent of the corn, 83 percent of the cotton, and 89 percent of the soybeans planted in the U.S. were biotech varieties.
OK, so it's not exactly an "attack of the killer tomatoes," nor is it a plague of locusts of Biblical proportions, but the accidental release of Bayer CropScience's LLRICE 601, a genetically modified strain of rice that had not yet received USDA approval for commercialization, into commercial stocks of long-grain rice is expected to have a significant economic impact on Bayer CropScience as well as U.S. rice farmers and exporters. The trouble began in July when Bayer's own test results indicated that LLRICE 601 was detected in some commercial supplies of long-grain rice in storage bins in Arkansas and Missouri. The company notified the USDA and the FDA, and by mid-August the story made national headlines.
GMO FOOD FIGHTWhat has some consumers upset is that in the U.S., commercial food products containing genetically modified organism (GMO) materials do not have to be labeled or differentiated because they are considered safe by the government if they have passed USDA safety tests and inspections and have become deregulated (meaning they can be commercially sold into the food chain), according to Tom Deeb, executive consultant at ASI Food Safety Consultants. "Within our food chain, these foods are very widespread," says Deeb. As a matter of fact, USDA estimates that more than 70 percent of processed foods on U.S. grocery store shelves contain ingredients and oils from biotech crops. "GMO foods were originally thought of as a positive way to enhance global nutrition and ensure that there's enough food to feed the people of the world." Despite the good intentions, there are still naysayers. "The main issue educated opponents have is that GMO developers crossbreed species that would not naturally crossbreed," says Maria Beug-Deeb, president of T&M Associates. "These strains can then transfer to other plants. If a GMO crop is affected by blight, you would normally go back to where there's a naturally occurring species and try to create a new hybrid. But if GMO seeds have spread and contaminated natural or ancestor crops, there's a problem."
While opponents of biotech foods implied that this renegade rice was a horrific problem, it actually posed no human health, food safety, or environmental risks, according to USDA's Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. "It was never a human or animal health hazard," says Tom Deeb, executive consultant at ASI Food Safety Consultants. "This rice contains the same gene technology that we've been using on corn and soybeans for over a decade to make them resistant to weed control products. Bayer just never asked for permission to commercialize the product and without that approval it shouldn't have entered the food chain." "The protein found in LLRICE 601 is the same protein that's been approved for use in other products, and it is considered safe," says Cindy Smith, deputy administrator for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (APHIS) Biotechnology Regulatory Services program. Bayer's prepared statement regarding safety is that "the protein [found in LLRICE 601] is 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." As a matter of fact, Bayer already has two products, LLRICE 62 and LLRICE 06, which are based on the same protein, approved but not yet in the commercial realm, says Smith.
SOMETHING TO STEW ABOUT The crossbreeding of GMO crops with organic and non-GMO crops is another concern. Crops that are intended to be organic might accidentally cross-pollinate with GMO crops if they are located close together. "Situations like this have financial implications because countries like Japan and Europe have restrictions on GMO foods, which means growers of organic crops have to follow rigorous guidelines concerning segregation," says Maria Beug-Deeb, president of T&M Associates. "This is very difficult with the way we handle products. So, crossbreeding has the potential to exclude our farmers from market." Creating "super weeds" is yet another issue. "When natural plants and weeds cross-pollinate with GMO plants that are Round-Up Ready [plants designed to tolerate weed killers], they may become resistant to weed killer, and how do you get rid of them?" asks Beug-Deeb. "The more GMO production you have, the bigger the potential problem."
Still, LLRICE 601 should not have made its way into the food supply, so the USDA is conducting an investigation to determine the circumstances of the release and whether any regulatory violations occurred. "All we know is that the strain of rice was present in a foundation seed of a variety of rice planted in 2003," says Smith. "From there, one could determine that there would be trace levels of 601 in that rice, but how the seed spread we don't know because it's a tremendously small amount." From past experience with other biotech foul-ups such as the well-documented StarLink case in 2001, where a genetically engineered corn not approved for human consumption turned up in the food stream, experts know that it is almost impossible to find the source of the release and to locate all the commercialized food products that may contain the protein. "The problem is that the time between release and discovery can be years, and the release is no longer contained to just one state or grower," says Maria Beug-Deeb, president of T&M Associates. "Our grain system is very fluid between states and counties so contamination of one crop can cause a widespread problem that can't be tracked or recalled. We are still finding StarLink in our food today."
CAN'T EAT THAT!Dietary restrictions are another major concern surrounding genetically engineered foods. "A lot of people have dietary restrictions and the potential to do something like splicing fish genes into tomatoes exists. If such a product had been commercialized, it wouldn't require special labeling and could, therefore, be sold to unknowing customers who might have dietary restrictions due to religious beliefs or allergies," says Maria Beug-Deeb, president of T&M Associates.
Despite the gloomy forecast, investigation will continue, and the price will be high for Bayer CropScience and the industry. "LLRICE 601 has the potential to be a half-billion to billion-dollar problem," says Deeb. The hefty price tag will come from testing rice to be sure it doesn't contain the strain, product recalls, and lawsuits. Already farmers in California, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana are gearing up for class action lawsuits against Bayer, alleging that its GMO rice has contaminated their crops. And the product recall situation could be a nightmare depending on the extent of the release as 58 percent of the U.S. utilization of rice is in direct food use, 16 percent is used in processed foods and beer, respectively, and 10 percent is used in pet food, according to USDA estimates.
BASIC INGREDIENTSWhy are universities, researchers, and private companies tinkering with crop genetics in the first place? GMO crops are designed for three reasons: to produce crops that tolerate drought conditions and herbicides while resisting insects and viruses, to develop crops with better nutrition such as fortified rice and corn, and to create potential pharmaceuticals. "The point is for nutritional enhancement, pharmaceutical products, and easier crop production, handling, and increased yields," says Maria Beug-Deeb, president of T&M Associates.
Rice exports are already suffering. According to USDA statistics, the U.S. provides about 12 percent of the world rice trade. In 2005, 80 percent of rice exports were long-grain varieties. Since the news broke in August, Japan, the Philippines, and the European Union are demanding certification that U.S. rice that crosses their borders is GMO-free. This requires testing of all exported rice products, which is a costly and time-consuming process. Industry experts are hoping these economic ramifications serve as a wake-up call for better monitoring of the GMO process. "Because there is no taste, smell, or other physical difference between GMO and non-GMO, it takes very sophisticated testing equipment to know whether GMOs are in the finished product," says Beug-Deeb. "It's not cheap or simple, nor is it something that in production can be done routinely, so it comes down to very careful segregation processes during production."
TOMORROW'S MENUWhether you consider biotech foods the wave of the future or a product of Dr. Frankenstein, the fact is that they are here in droves. Since 1987, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) says it has deregulated, or approved, more than 70 genetically engineered products. APHIS, along with the FDA and EPA, share responsibility for regulating biotechnology products to ensure that the approved products developed in the U.S. pose no risk to human health or the environment. According to the USDA, deregulation of GE crops, a process that includes an initial risk assessment and a thorough environmental review, is necessary before they can be produced commercially. "The effect of GMO foods in the distant future is what has people concerned," says Maria Beug-Deeb, president of T&M Associates. "Scientists do their best to simulate future effects, but we don't have crystal balls. However, we have to move forward with the science because it has the potential to feed and nourish the 6 billion people of the world. Organic production is not going to feed the world's population. Science in the form of seeds, GMOs, herbicides, and pesticides is required. The science of GMO is currently very sound, but we must continue to evaluate it and take corrective actions if needed."
"Releases like this are a standard quality problem that can be avoided via processes like those used to keep organic product separate from non-organic," says Deeb. "Each company in the production chain should have quality and segregation systems that begin when the seed arrives. Systems that validate to whom seed went and where it is planted must be in place. "During the planting and growing phases, monitoring of the growth cycle is essential as are audits of the farm, equipment, and harvesting processes. Then systems and processes for segregating, labeling, and identifying GMO products are necessary during storage," he continues. "Following storage, there must be processes and documentation for what is done next, whether it's is burned, bagged, or destroyed," he says. However, Michael Phillips, vice president for food agriculture with the Biotechnology Industry Organization, says these systems are already in place. "There are best practices that the industry uses in terms of ensuring quality and what goes into bags of seed that are put out for sale," he says. "As in any business, there are good manufacturing practices that people follow, but once in a while there's a glitch or human error." To avoid the "glitches" that may be responsible for past, present, or future releases of regulated GMOs, Deeb suggests a higher degree of oversight and verification from the USDA or state departments of agriculture. "Since GMOs have been established as safe, the number of inspections and audits conducted by federal and state inspectors has gone down due to decreasing budgets. We are in a situation where the number of inspections is minimal," he says. "Government and private GMO developers need to find a way to audit and verify that these steps in the process are really happening." Despite the mistakes, industry experts say GMO foods have a solid future. "This is the wave of the future," says Phillips. "The adoption rate is growing because it is a technology that farmers want to get their hands on. Biotechnology has huge advantages for developing countries, and while there's a lot of talk and hype about safety, there has not been one incident during this decade with crops in the marketplace in which there's been any harm to consumer health or the environment. So, it's safe to say we have a very bright future." Joy LePree is a contributing writer for CHEM.INFO. She has worked as a journalist for 14 years, covering a variety of issues and trends involving chemicals, processing, engineering, and maintenance. To share your comments about the content of this article, send an e-mail to Lisa Arrigo, editor-in-chief, at firstname.lastname@example.org.