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Widespread testing woes found for biotech grains

(Sunday, Dec. 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Carey Gillam, Reuters, 12/19/03: Laboratories measuring the amount of genetically modified grain mixed into supplies of U.S. corn and other crops -- a vital factor among foreign buyers of U.S. commodities -- routinely provide inaccurate results, federal grain inspection officials said on Friday.

The problem lies with methods used to detect the amount of gene-altered material mixed in with corn and other grains. The issue is critical to international grain trading as countries that don't want biotech grain are setting very specific standards on how much accidental mixing they will tolerate.

"The biggest problem we have right now is we can really just estimate the quantity of bio material in there," said Steve Tanner, director of technical services for the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), which operates the federal grain inspection service.

In April, European Union member states will start requiring labeling of foods and grains that contain more than 0.9 percent of genetically modified materials.

Tanner said recent examinations of commercial and government grain testing laboratories found they failed to produce consistent results when measuring the biotech material in control grain samples.

He said variability "was disappointing" among the more than 30 laboratories examined.

Although the companies did better when asked only to detect whether biotech materials were present at all, the error rate of about 10 percent was still worrisome, Tanner said.

GIPSA is preparing another round of the voluntary examinations in January.

Scientists in Europe, Canada, Japan, and the United States have started working with GIPSA and the U.S. Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards & Technology to standardize testing and make it more reliable, said Donald Kendall, GIPSA's biotechnology program manager.

Both Kendall and Tanner said dozens of different tests are used, and methods vary widely for conducting the tests and analyzing the results.

"What we're trying to do is rein in some of the chaos," Tanner said.

The issue came to a boil several years ago when an unapproved variety of biotech corn accidentally entered the food supply and re-energized fears among those who believe biotech foods may be dangerous to health and the environment.

The United States once sold hefty amounts of corn to Europe, but the EU now bans U.S. corn imports. It does allow imports of corn gluten for animal feed, but that too will require labeling and testing next year.

Tolerance levels of 1 percent or less have been set by India, Australia and Poland, South Korea allows up to 3 percent, and Japan, Russia, and Taiwan allow up to 5 percent.

Vincent L. Vilker, division chief for biotechnology at the NIST, said assurances that grain shipments meet tolerance levels are now nearly meaningless.

"They want to put a number on it and that is putting a demand on the technology that just can't be met at the present time," Vilker said. "You can put any number you want. But be aware that you're not doing much more than wasting paper."