Bayer at centre of GM contamination scare

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The Independent Online

The European Commission came under pressure yesterday to ban imports of long-grain rice from the US after it emerged that crops there had been contaminated by genetically modified varieties.

Japan stopped US long-grain rice imports over the weekend, after news on Friday of the contamination.

Bayer, the German-based healthcare and agricultural products group, produced the variety of GM rice. It was never authorised by regulators but has now found its way into commercial rice crops. The issue threatens $1bn (£527m) of US rice exports.

GM rice is not allowed to be imported into the EU. A spokeswoman for the commission said: "The European Commission will write today to the US authorities to request specific information, in particular in relation to the risk assessment and to the detection method. In addition, the commission will meet company representatives today to get additional information. Based on this information, a decision on further actions, if necessary, will be taken."

That was not good enough for environmentalists, who called for an immediate ban. Liz Wright, of Friends of the Earth, said only the suspension of long-grain rice imports from the US could prevent the illegal variety entering our food. She said there should also be widespread testing to see if the rice was already on the shelves.

The Bayer rice variety, known as LLRICE 601, which is bred to resist a specific type of weedkiller, has not been fully tested for safety for human consumption. Most GM crops imported to the EU are used as animal feed, with the exception of GM corn and soya.

Ms Wright said: "This shows that that, even after 10 years of trials, the Americans are still not able to handle the coexistence of GM and non-GM crops."

The development comes at a delicate time in the UK, just as the Government is poised to announce rules that would allow the growing of GM crops in this country in a way designed to prevent non-GM crops being contaminated.

The US Food and Drug Administration insisted that the tainting of the rice crop "poses no food or feed safety concerns". Bayer field tested the LLRICE 601 variety between 1998 and 2001.

Bayer said the GM protein in the rice was well known to regulators and had been confirmed safe for food and feed use in a number of crops in countries, including the EU.