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Farm group says USDA put bad food into feed chain

(Thursday, Jan. 23, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Iowa farmers and an environmental group Thursday charged the U.S. government with selling a problem supply of genetically engineered corn to a feed company despite complaints that the corn had caused hormonal problems in pigs.

The Iowa Farmers Union (IFU) and Friends of the Earth sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, asking the USDA to bar use of the corn in human or animal food "as long as the cause of reproductive failure in swine is unresolved."

More than 20 farmers have complained over the last two years about sows that ate the corn developing pseudopregnancy, exhibiting signs of pregnancy for a full term without carrying a fetus. The corn is being tested to see if it caused or contributed to the problems, the groups said.

They complained Thursday that despite the potential problems, the U.S. Commodities Credit Corporation sold 950 bushels of the suspect corn on Jan. 9 to the G&R Grain and Feed Company in Portsmouth, Iowa.

"They thought they could sell a minute amount and blend it in with other corn and the farmers would accept it," said Iowa Farmers Union representative Lori Sokolowski.

"We felt that further scientific testing needed to be done for USDA to determine if this ... is a risk. But they aren't waiting for the testing to be done."

Officials at the USDA had no immediate comment, but said they was preparing a response. In August, a USDA researcher wrote "one possible cause" of problems with sows "may be the presence of an unanticipated, biologically active, chemical compound within the corn."

"Why would USDA Secretary Veneman allow her Department to sell this corn to a feed company before finishing a scientific investigation to learn if it is harmful to pigs or other farm animals?" said IFU's Chris Peterson in a statement issued Thursday. "We want sound science to avoid reproductive problems in Iowa's swine herds. Independent hog farmers have told us that this problem could be the final blow to their farms."

The sows in question had all eaten a genetically modified corn, some of which was also found contaminated with a type of mold. Researchers have not yet determined what about the corn could cause the hormonal changes, but have not been able to rule out the corn as the cause, the farmers union said.

"Their hormones are all messed up. The veterinarians couldn't figure out what was wrong with the sows," said Sokolowski.

Friends of the Earth, an activist group generally opposed to biotech crops, said it had been corresponding for months with the USDA on this matter. A letter from the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration dated Oct. 29 said "scientists are testing the corn to determine if it contains a novel toxin that might impact swine production," but no final determination had ever been communicated.

The farmers union and Friends of the Earth acknowledged that researchers at Iowa State University have said that genetically engineered Bt corn is not the cause of swine reproductive failures experienced by numerous local farmers.

But they said, research has not not concluded whether some other aspect of the corn was causing the problems.

The USDA has about 22,000 bushels of the suspect corn, having obtained it as collateral on a loan to the operators of a Harlan, Iowa, farm.

The groups said the FSA attempted in late 2002 to sell the corn for ethanol production but it was rejected by a local processor.

"When there is a mysterious problem that could affect the fate of farmers, our health and the environment, we need answers - not attempts to sweep it under the rug like the USDA has done," said Friends of the Earth spokesman Larry Bohlen.