More than two weeks after it was publicly announced that an unauthorized strain of genetically modified rice was found in U.S. long-grain rice, one of the country's largest organic rice producers reported that business is pretty much as usual.
"We haven't seen any impact [from the GM rice problem] at this point," said Grant Lundberg, chief executive of Lundberg Family Farms, a Richvale, Calif.-based producer of organic rice for nearly 40 years. Lundberg sells its rice in natural and conventional food stores.
"The whole issue is just developing, so the big question is: 'Is this going to be a big issue in the future?'" Lundberg said.
According to Bill Reed, spokesman for Riceland Foods, a Stuttgart, Ark.-based cooperative of 9,000 rice farmers in five Southern states, the GM rice brouhaha began in January, when a Riceland customer discovered genetically engineered material in its rice order. Riceland sent a sample from the customer to a testing lab, which found the rice was contaminated with Bayer CropScience's Liberty Link herbicide-resistant GE material. Riceland would not disclose the name or location of the customer. Reed said that in May, Riceland collected samples from several geographically dispersed grain storage locations, and a "significant number tested positive for the Bayer trait."
Riceland contacted Bayer, which Reed said confirmed the results at a .06 percent level, or the equivalent of six GE kernels in 10,000 kernels of rice. Bayer notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration of its discovery in July. "Both have reviewed the available scientific data and concluded that there are no human health, food safety or environmental concerns associated with this GE rice," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said in an Aug. 18 statement.
But the European Union, United Kingdom and Japan don't agree. Japan has banned all imports of U.S. long-grain rice, and the European Union and United Kingdom are requiring that U.S. rice shipments be verified GM-free before they are allowed in member countries. Johanns also said Aug. 18 that the USDA is working with U.S. trade partners on this issue.
Johanns said about 50 percent of the U.S. rice crop is exported and 80 percent of that is long-grain rice. The 2006 U.S. rice crop is estimated to be worth $1.9 billion. According to various reports, U.S. rice sales dropped 5 percent following the GM rice announcement.
On Aug. 30, a group of Arkansas rice farmers sued Bayer and Riceland, alleging that the GM rice contaminated the state's long-grain rice crop and has lowered the farmers' crop prices.
There is no GM rice grown commercially in the United States. The Bayer rice was a test crop and was thus unapproved for human consumption by the USDA. Johanns said the USDA is conducting an investigation to determine how the GM rice was released and if there were any violations of federal regulations. Johanns also said that because the test crop is now in the marketplace, USDA would begin the process of deregulating it to permit its use in food. The process will include a public comment period.