Deregulation process for Bayer rice initiated

The USDA has claimed safety for LL Rice 601 and is moving for its approval. European authorities are responding.

After traces of an unapproved, genetically-modified rice known as Liberty Link (LL) Rice 601 were found in American supplies tagged for retail sale and human consumption, the United States Department of Agriculture has begun the process to deregulate the product.

The proposal for deregulation, submitted to the USDA by the manufacturer Bayer CropScience, was published in the Federal Register. The petition is in accordance with APHIS’ regulations for the introduction of GM organisms and products, and the USDA will be open for relevant comments from the public through 10 October.

On 18 August, the USDA announced having found traces of the GM strain in conventional, commercial rice harvests in 2005. Based on USDA research, and agreeing with both a draft environmental assessment from APHIS and data from the US Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture also affirmed the unlikeliness of a danger to human health or to the environment: LL RICE 601 is similar to two other Liberty Link GM varieties from Bayer which were declared safe, and deregulated, in 1999.

Due to bacterium-derived genes which they share, all three strains of rice are capable of withstanding the herbicide Liberty (known also as glufosinate). The USDA claims this similarity, together with information gathered in ‘numerous field trials’ between 1998 and 2001, to be the basis of the decision to apply for the extension of deregulation to all three varieties.

Upon deregulation, Bayer would be permitted to exploit the commercial possibilities of this rice, although no intention to do so has been made yet clear. However, rice farmers from six US states, claiming contamination of their crops with LL RICE 601, currently have initiated suits against Bayer in a US District Court in Arkansas.

Still uncertain are also the potential effects of deregulation upon importers of US rice. Since the USDA announcement of local contamination with LL RICE 601, many have instituted import restrictions: Japan, for example, banned US rice completely. The European Union ordered testing of imports, to ensure that this rice remain outside its member states - however, since the contamination of US rice appears to have remained unnoticed for several months, the impossibility of a guarantee was officially admitted by the EU last week.

In Germany, according to the Baden-Wuerttemberg ministry of agriculture, LL RICE 601 has been detected in seven out of forty-six retail supplies tested: this rice, which may be sold neither in the USA nor in the EU, was confirmed by the ministry to have been immediately removed from the shelves.

The ministry also stated that, according to present knowledge, it could be assumed that the incident poses ‘no threat to health’, since only minimal quantities (less than 0.05 percent) of LL RICE 601 were found – a result which agrees with US findings of roughly 0.06 percent contamination in supplies.