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Pharmaceutical crop guidelines expected

(Thursday, March 6, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Associated Press: WASHINGTON -- The Agriculture Department is expected to release guidelines Friday restricting how biotech companies plant and harvest crops genetically modified to produce medicine.

Companies would be required to widen buffer zones dividing pharmaceutical plants from food crops to prevent mix-ups, a USDA official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In addition, farmers would have to dedicate tractors and other farm equipment for cultivating, maintaining and harvesting pharmaceutical crops, and could not use the same equipment on food crops, the official said.

This would prevent residues from the medicine crops from contaminating grain headed for the food supply.

Biotech companies have been genetically engineering plants, usually corn, to grow large quantities of pharmaceutical proteins and enzymes to make medicine, or to grow materials for industrial products.

The food industry is afraid the plants could come in contact with food crops growing in nearby fields and has insisted that the government write tougher rules to guard against a food scare.

In November, the government seized a load of soybeans in Nebraska that were contaminated with the remnants of a test corn. The corn was genetically designed to produce proteins for a pig vaccine. ProdiGene Inc. of College Station, Texas, was blamed in the incident.

The Agriculture Department blocked the soybeans from entering the food supply, but food companies, consumer advocates and environmental activists said the case was too close for comfort and showed the need for stringent rules.

Food companies understand the dangers of contamination because of a food scare in 2000 when a corn variety that was not approved for humans to eat ended up in taco shells, prompting recalls and an expensive recovery effort.

Scientists approved the corn just for animal feed because it could cause allergic reactions in people.

As a result, food companies lost confidence in the biotech industry, which since then has tried to prove it can safely produce genetically modified crops.

On the Net:

Agriculture Department Biotechnology site:

See this story at http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/national/AP-Biotech-Crops.html