Joint US-UK cover-up alleged over GM maize

Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Friday April 1, 2005


The whereabouts of 170,000 tonnes of contaminated GM maize and its
possible import into the UK has caused an international investigation
and claims of a cover-up on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) first
put out a statement saying the contamination was "on a small scale"
but later retracted it, instead saying the maize was unlikely to have
got into food but might have been fed to cattle.

The maize is not licensed to be grown in Europe and contains a GM
antibiotic-resistant marker of a type scientists have advised the EU
to phase out. It is theoretically possible for bacteria to become
resistant to antibiotics as a result of contact with the marker genes
- although the company which developed the maize, Syngenta, denies it.

The row intensified yesterday because it was realised that the US
administration had known of the contamination since December, but did
not notify Britain until late last month when an article in Nature
revealed the problem.

One GM maize, BT10, not licensed for Europe, was found to have been
mixed up with another GM maize, BT11, which was licensed. The two
varieties produce the same proteins, which led Syngenta and the US
watchdogs, the food and drug administration and the environment
protection agency, to claim there was no problem; the two crops were
the same.

It was a line that Defra followed until it was realised that BT10
contained the suspect antibiotic marker. This caused anti-GM groups
to claim a cover-up by the company and the US administration.

Markus Payer, a spokesman for Syngenta in Switzerland, said yesterday
that 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares) of the suspect seed had been
grown unknowingly in the US between 2001 and 2004. It appeared BT10
seed had been planted in the belief it was the licensed BT11. As a
result the harvested crops were mixed and sold. This was not
discovered until routine tests in December 2004 revealed BT10's DNA

A Syngenta spokesman said 150,000 tonnes would have been marketed but
it believed only a tiny amount reached Europe. Only 18% of US maize
was exported and less than 1% came to Europe. He conceded that,
before 2004, GM maize destined for Europe was not labelled, so it
would be impossible to know where it had gone. The company and the US
authorities were investigating and would notify all concerned as soon
as possible.

Lindsay Keenan, a Greenpeace campaigner, said: "It is unbelievable
that Syngenta, after four months of preparation for releasing this
information, should say that these GE crops are physically identical
... This case exposes the basic unpredictability of GMOs [genetically
modified organisms], the incompetence of Syngenta to handle GMO seeds
safely, the complete lack of regulatory controls in the US, and the
lack of implementation of controls in the EU."

The European Food Safety Authority, which advises EU states, said
marker genes conferring resistance to ampicillin "should be
restricted to field trials and not be present in GM plants placed on
the market". And the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international
food standards body, has urged the agricultural biotech industry to
use alternative methods to refine GM strains in the future.

Brian John, of GM Free Wales, accused the US authorities and the
British government of trying to cover up the problem. "Nobody, either
in the government or in the food safety agencies, appears to be doing

Defra said it believed only a small amount of the maize may have been
imported, and was unlikely to be in food, only cattle feed. There was
no danger to the public.