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USDA reports 115 infractions of biotech rules

(Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Randy Fabi, Reuters, 10/18/03: WASHINGTON - U.S. biotech companies and research universities have violated strict federal regulations on planting experimental genetically modified crops more than a hundred times in the last decade, the Agriculture Department said on Friday.

The USDA said none of the 115 infractions since 1990 resulted in any harm to U.S. agriculture, the food supply or the environment.

The department published for the first time the number of violations the biotech industry has committed when planting GM corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops not yet ready for commercialization. With more and more biotech companies targeting GM crops for uses other than feeding humans and animals, the USDA said it wanted to make its enforcement actions more transparent to the public. Companies are experimenting with GM crops as a cheaper way to mass produce medicines and industrial products.

Environmental groups said they have sought these documents for more than four years through the Freedom of Information Act.

"For an industry that has claimed to the public that ... they follow the law and protect the environment, 115 infractions seem large and is disturbing," said Gregory Jaffe, biotech director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The USDA said the 115 infractions represent less than 2 percent of the 7,400 field tests authorized since 1990. The USDA considered most of infractions as minor violations like dirty farm equipment and not enough isolation between conventional crops.

Eight of the infractions led to fines ranging from $500 to $250,000. Biotech powerhouse Monsanto Co. was involved in four of those eight cases, with fines ranging from $2,500 to $25,000.

Eric Sachs, Monsanto's director of scientific affairs, said the company had a total of 44 infractions out of 2,500 field test permits.

"The majority of these infractions were for minor issues," he said. Although none of the experimental GM crops made it into commerce, Monsanto said there were some instances were buffer crops surrounding the test field were inadvertently harvested and used. "We take the matter of compliance infractions seriously and make our related obligations a priority," the company said in a statement. Only a $250,000 fine to ProdiGene was previously made public. The USDA last year accused the Texas biotech firm of mishandling its experimental corn crop and contaminating nearby crops, which have since been destroyed.

Biotech companies welcomed the release of USDA enforcement actions, saying it would help build more public confidence in biotechnology. Following USDA's announcement, Monsanto said it would publish a list of its infractions on the company Web site.

Environmental groups and consumer advocates said they believed many infractions have gone unreported due to the lack of USDA resources and personnel.

"I think there is reason to believe there are many, many infractions that go unreported," said Richard Caplan of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The USDA also announced it has established a new compliance and enforcement office within the USDA's Biotechnology Regulatory Services. The office, with a staff of four people, will seek to boost inspections, auditing and training.