USDA Probes Nebraska
Biotech GM Crop Contamination

By Randy Fabi

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration said on Wednesday it was investigating whether conventional soybeans grown in a Nebraska field were inadvertently contaminated by residue from the previous year's crop of biotech corn that was engineered to produce pharmaceutical compounds.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said it had quarantined an unspecified amount of soybeans manufactured by privately-held ProdiGene Inc. The beans may be destroyed as a precaution.
At issue is whether a small number of biotech corn plants sprouted the following year in the same field where conventional soybeans were grown. All the plants in the field may have been mixed together when farm equipment harvested the field in the autumn of 2001.
Genetically altered corn grown for pharmaceutical use is not approved by federal regulators for human food.
"We are in the process of investigating the situation. It did not enter the food supply," said Alisa Harrison, a USDA spokeswoman. "Probably, the soybeans will be destroyed regardless."
Farmers routinely rotate soybean and corn crops in a field as a way to keep the soil healthy and productive.
Environmental groups have expressed concern that the USDA has not imposed more restrictions on bio-engineered pharmaceutical crops to ensure they do not mix with crops intended for human consumption.
"We are confident the food supply has not been affected," said Mike Herndon, spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration.
USDA officials were in discussions with the College Station, Texas-based ProdiGene on how to dispose of the soybeans.
In a statement, ProdiGene said it was working with USDA "to address compliance challenges" at the Nebraska location.
"As part of its ongoing commitment to meet or exceed best practices in our industry, ProdiGene is working out the terms of program to enhance our compliance and to ensure the safest and most responsible manufacturing processes," the company said.
The firm said its work in bio-pharmaceuticals could reduce the cost and increase the availability of pharmaceuticals to combat diseases like AIDS and diabetes.
These biotech crops -- which may be implanted with proteins from other plants, animals or even humans -- are designed to produce antibodies for treating diseases such as cancer and Parkinson's disease.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization last month said it would voluntarily stop growing pharmaceutical crops in the Midwest and Plains states to ease fears of accidental contamination of food or animal feed.
The self-imposed directive, which goes beyond any current government regulation, was implemented in order to prevent another StarLink corn debacle.
In September 2000, StarLink corn, approved only for animal feed, was found to have been mixed with crops that were used in human food. The finding sparked a nationwide recall of corn chips and taco shells out of concerns that StarLink may cause allergic reactions.
Additional reporting by Charles Abbott and Christopher Doering in Washington
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