Biopharming Scares Kraft / General Mills

Biotech request alarms food industry

The Grocery Manufacturers of America is concerned about ProdiGene's plans
to grow biotech corn in Texas.

Washington, D.C. - A biotech company is seeking federal approval to begin
regular production of pharmaceutical corn crops, a move that has alarmed
the U.S. food industry.

The Texas-based company, ProdiGene Inc., gave the biotech industry a
black mark two years ago when it was caught mismanaging field trials of
genetically modified crops in Iowa and Nebraska.

ProdiGene, which is commercializing two medical products made from
bioengineered corn, has asked the U.S. Agriculture Department to allow
cultivation of the crops in Frio County, Texas, a thinly populated area
southwest of San Antonio.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents such brands as
Kellogg, General Mills, Kraft and Gerber, opposes the application. In a
letter July 28 to the USDA, the trade group said the government provides
inadequate oversight of crops engineered for pharmaceutical and
industrial purposes.

"We have long memories of the potential impact this can have on our
companies," said Stephanie Childs, a group spokeswoman.

Some food companies were required to do nationwide recalls three years
ago, after a variety of biotech feed corn not approved for human
consumption, StarLink, was found mixed with supplies of food-grade grain.

ProdiGene officials did not return calls seeking comment.

ProdiGene was forced to pay the government about $3 million in penalties
and cleanup costs for failing to prevent its pharmaceutical corn plants
from getting mixed with crops intended for food or animal feed.

ProdiGene's problems, coupled with tighter planting rules imposed by the
USDA in 2003, dealt a sharp setback to Iowa's hopes of developing bio-farming.

A taxpayer-financed Iowa investment fund bought into ProdiGene in 2001.
Last year, a subsidiary of Iowa-based Stine Seed Co. purchased a majority
ownership in ProdiGene.

However, the food companies' opposition to ProdiGene's Texas plans
highlights the industry's concern about biotech crops.

There were no field trials of pharmaceutical crops in the state last
year, and this year there is just one, which involves barley, not corn.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America said the Food and Drug
Administration should evaluate the safety of pharmaceutical or industrial
crops before they are approved for cultivation.

"Right now, as it stands, federal regulations say that if any of these
plant-made pharmaceuticals make it into the food supply, we have an
adulterated product," Childs said. "It's our brands that get damaged.
We're not ready to take that risk for a product that we're not developing."

The USDA took the unusual step of writing environmental assessments for
the ProdiGene crops because the company plans repeated plantings during
the next several years.

USDA analysts concluded there would be little health or environmental
risk from the corn crops, in part because little other corn is grown in
Frio County. Although the location was not disclosed, the ProdiGene crops
will be at least a mile away from any other corn with which they could
cross-pollinate, the studies said.

The corn would be used to manufacture trypsin, used for insulin, vaccines
and other products, and aprotinin, which also has a number of medical
applications. Both products are now derived from cattle tissue.

The company will inspect the crops weekly at first and then daily during
pollination, the USDA said. Several vegetable crops that will grow
nearby, including onions and cabbage, will be picked by hand to ensure
that no corn seeds are mixed with them.

Two trade groups representing companies that process and ship grain - the
National Grain and Feed Association and the North American Export Grain
Association - told the USDA they were pleased the Texas farm is "far
removed from major corn producing areas."

But Gregory Jaffe, who follows the biotech industry for the Center for
Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, said the USDA
released insufficient information about the site to judge whether the
crop was a threat.

He also shares the food industry's concern about ProdiGene's plans.

"We should not engineer any food crop and allow it to be grown on a
commercial scale without FDA determining that that crop is safe if it
gets into the food supply," he said.

The USDA is taking public comment on the environmental assessments
through Tuesday.

In 2003, the USDA increased isolation and inspection requirements for
pharmaceutical crops to avoid a repeat of the ProdiGene incidents.

"We expected it would mean less pharmaceutical corn is grown in the Corn
Belt," said Cindy Smith, who oversees biotech regulation for the USDA.
"We leave it up to researchers to decide where they are going to grow."

TITLE: Biotech request alarms food industry
SOURCE: Des Moines Register, USA, by Philip Brasher
DATE: 6 Aug 2004