When government agencies have to announce bad news, they tend to do so on Friday afternoons, so that it will disappear into the often-unread Saturday paper. Thatâ€™s what USDA did on Oct. 5 when the agency said it cannot explain how the U.S. supply of long-grain rice was tainted by unapproved, genetically-engineered rice.
It wasnâ€™t for lack of effort, the government insisted.
“USDA conducted an extensive investigation that involved more than 8,500 staff hours and site visits to more than 45 locations in 11 states and Puerto Rico,” said Bruce Knight, USDAâ€™s Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, in a statement.
But the government says it doesnâ€™t know what went wrong and wonâ€™t punish Bayer CropScience, which developed and tested the transgenic rice which found its way into the food supply.
This was bad news for rice growers, for exporters and even, as it happens, for supporters of genetically-modified foodâ€”because it puts a spotlight on the fact that the system for regulating GMO plants, and keeping them segregated from the rest of the food system, does not work well, to say the least.
â€œOnce again we find out too late that the government is uninterested in protecting farmers, consumers or the environment from genetic crop experiments,â€ said Joseph Mendelson III, Legal Director for the Center for Food Safety. â€œItâ€™s shameful that USDA refuses to hold Bayer responsible.â€
I wrote about the GMO rice mystery at length in a FORTUNE story called Attack of the Mutant Rice. As the story explains, two popular varieties of long-grain rice were widely contaminated with unapproved GMO rice. The GMO variety was approved retroactively by USDA but everyone agrees it should never had found its way into rice, an ingredient in beer, rice cereal for kids, Rice Krispies, etc. Thereâ€™s no danger from eating the rice, the regulators assure us.
But the contamination caused significant disruptions of U.S. rice exports, particularly to the EU. Rice growers (and their lawyers) will argue that it also caused a drop in rice prices. Theyâ€™ve sued Bayer CropScience, which was developing the weed-resistant stains of rice.
Not only did the government do a poor job of regulating the GMO crop, it turns out that it failed to keep proper records of when and where the GMO crops were planted. No wonder it now canâ€™t explain what went awry.
As Rick Weiss of The Washington Post reported on Saturday,
The USDA report notes in passing that, during its investigation, it discovered seven instances in which unapproved gene-altered crops were either planted outside the time periods allowed under their permits or were not harvested and destroyed within the required timeframes.
Thatâ€™s embarrassing, or at least it should be.
Rice farmers are understandably dismayed by the USDAâ€™s failure to figure out what went wrong.
Ray Vester, a rice farmer in Stuttgart, Arkansasâ€”itâ€™s the rice and wild duck capital of the worldâ€”and a former member of the Arkansas State Plant Board, told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette,
Once again, USDA has let the American farmer down. They didnâ€™t have the protocols in place to keep this from happening or find out how it happened.
They spent all these months trying to find reasons not to blame anybody or make a decision, and I think thatâ€™s what they accomplished.
The USA Rice Federation said,
The report points to the need for increased corporate responsibility and stewardship by the biotechnology industry
I canâ€™t say the news out of USDA surprised me. Asking the agency what went wrong with the tainted rice is, in effect, asking the agency to investigate itselfâ€”since USDA is responsible for regulating testing of GMO foods. They werenâ€™t likely to issue a report saying, effect, sorry, guys, but we blew it.
Thank goodness the rice industry and especially state regulators in Arkansas, which is the nationâ€™s No 1 rice producing state, moved swiftly to try to contain the damage. The state banned the planting this year of Cheniere and Clearfield 131, two varieties of rice that tested positive for trace amounts of a protein marketed under the brand Liberty Link, in an effort to clean up the food supply. Farmers also agreed to extensive testing of their crop.
â€œImagine if we had waited for the APHIS report before taking decisive action,â€ said Al Montna, a rice farmer who is chairman of the USA Rice Federation.
Long-grain rice exports to Europe fell to 19,931 tons this year through July, down 64 percent from a year earlier, according to USDA. The EU was a major importer of long-grain rice from the US, purchasing 198,000 tons worth $67 million in 2005.
USDA did confirm widespread speculation that some of the contamination occurred at the Crowley Rice Research Station in Louisiana, where rice experts (who are widely respected) hired by Bayer told me they followed the governmentâ€™s rules. The rules just werenâ€™t good enough. It makes me wonder whether they were written to protect farmers, or advance the interests of the biotech industry. USDA promises that it will do better, but Iâ€™m not convinced. You can read a transcript here of Fridayâ€™s briefing, led by Cindy Smith, administrator of USDAâ€™s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).