August 23, 2006

EU Tightens Rules on US Biotech Rice Imports

By Jeremy Smith

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union has tightened document requirements on U.S. long grain rice imports to prove they are free of an unauthorized genetically modified organism (GMO), the European Commission said on Wednesday.

The decision follows the discovery by U.S. authorities of trace amounts of the unauthorized GMO rice strain in long grain samples that were targeted for commercial use.

"The European Commission has today adopted a decision requiring imports of long grain rice from the USA to be certified as free of the unauthorized GMO LL Rice 601," Commission spokesman Philip Tod said.

"The emergency measures ... mean that, with immediate effect, only consignments of U.S. long grain rice that have been tested by an accredited laboratory using a validated detection method and accompanied by a certificate assuring the absence of LL 601 will be able to enter the EU," he said.

On July 31, three weeks before the Commission was notified of the unauthorized GMO, U.S. agriculture and food safety authorities were told that testing by Bayer CropScience, a unit of Bayer AG, showed the LLRICE 601 strain in rice bins in Arkansas and Missouri.

It was the first time that unmarketed genetically engineered rice had been found in rice used in the U.S. commercial market.

Europe imported 300,000 tonnes of U.S. rice last year, with 85 percent being long grain. No GMO rice is yet authorized for import or sale in the 25 member countries of the bloc.

At present, no genetically modified (GMO) rice is authorized for import or sale within the 25-country European Union, although several biotech maize and rapeseed varieties have secured EU approval.

Japan, for which the United States is the largest rice exporter, has already suspended imports of U.S. long grain rice.

Europe's consumers are known for their skepticism about GMO crops. But the biotech industry insists its products are perfectly safe and no different to conventional foods.

U.S. authorities say the GMO strain poses no risk to public health or the environment but green groups are outraged by the latest GMO scare to flare up between the two huge trading partners, calling on the EU to suspend its U.S. rice imports.

The case recalls a similar transatlantic clash over GMO foods last year, when EU experts blocked imports of U.S. maize animal feed and grains unless there was proof they were untainted by an unauthorized GMO. That proof comes via a technical detection test, provided by the manufacturing company.

It is still unclear whether the unauthorized rice strain -- modified to withstand applications of a weed-killing pesticide -- might have found its way into shipments destined for European markets, and if so, how much of it and in what concentrations.