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USDA orders Prodigene biocorn destroyed in Iowa

(Thursday, Nov. 14, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Randy Fabi, Reuters: A small biotech company experimenting with a corn variety engineered to produce insulin was ordered to destroy 155 acres of the crop in Iowa because it may have contaminated nearby fields, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Thursday.

ProdiGene Inc, a privately owned company, is the target of a separate USDA investigation in Nebraska where a tiny amount of the company's biotech corn was accidentally mixed with soybeans during last month's harvest.

A growing number of U.S. companies are experimenting with biotech corn to produce cheaper proteins and compounds for use in pharmaceuticals. ProdiGene's biotech corn grown for pharmaceutical use is not federally approved for human or livestock feed.

"The Iowa incident was the same thing that happened in Nebraska," said Jim Rogers, spokesman for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The USDA, along with the Food and Drug Administration, is trying to determine if the Texas-based company violated any federal regulations. ProdiGene could face fines of up to $500,000 for each violation.

"At APHIS's request, and under APHIS supervision, ProdiGene has harvested and destroyed by incineration 155 acres of corn surrounding the field test site," the USDA said in a statement.

The Iowa corn was destroyed in September after USDA inspectors discovered a small amount of ProdiGene's biotech corn sprouting in a soybean field. The corn plants were removed by the company, but because the crop had already matured there was a chance its pollen could have blown into nearby fields.

"It was pulled, but not in time," Rogers said. "We don't think the corn spread, but we had the nearby fields destroyed just in case."

USDA officials said they were not sure if the Iowa soybeans, where the biotech corn was found, were harvested and quarantined.

In the Nebraska incident, the USDA said it quarantined about 500,000 bushels of soybeans after the company failed to pull all its rogue biotech corn plants from the fields. About one cup of stems and leaves from the biotech corn plants may have been mixed with the soybeans, the USDA said.

USDA officials said the soybeans will probably be destroyed, but were in discussions with the company on the matter.

Farmers routinely rotate crops to keep soil healthy and productive. Typically, a small number of plants from the previous year will sprout in a field.