In a new twist in a three-year-old investigation, the Justice Department said yesterday that DNA Plant Technology Corp of California had been formally charged because of its involvement in a tobacco company's attempts to raise tobacco plants with unusually high nicotine yields on farms in Brazil. Officials at the Department said the company involved was Brown & Williamson, America's third largest cigarette maker. While no charges were filed against B&W itself, the company is an unindicted co-conspirator, they said.
Government investigators have long suspected that B&W was attempting between 1984 and 1991 to develop the new plants in the hope of using them to manipulate nicotine levels - and therefore addiction rates - in the US market. Any such project could not legally have been undertaken on American soil.
DNA Plant Technology, which has already pleaded to a misdemeanour and pledged to co-operate with the inquiry, is specifically charged with exporting seeds from the US to Brazil for the experiments without appropriate licences.
The announcement comes as a further embarrassment to Kentucky-based B&W as the entire industry awaits congressional action later this year on the $368bn (pounds 224bn) tobacco health-costs settlement negotiated during 1997 between the cigarette companies and attorneys-general of some 30 US states.
The Justice Department believes that B&W was especially enthusiastic about a new tobacco plant type that it codenamed Y-1. The variety would apparently have contained a nicotine level of 6 per cent, or roughly twice the level that is normally found in flue-cured tobacco.
Officials said that when evidence first surfaced about the Brazilian project, DNA Plant Technology lied to the Food and Drug Administration in 1994 about the contract that had been signed between itself and Brown & Williamson as well as about the export of the tobacco seeds.