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Administration kept mum about unapproved modified corn sold

WASHINGTON—The federal government kept it secret for three months that genetically modified corn seed was sold accidentally to some U.S. farms for four years and may have gotten into the American food supply.

The accidental use of unapproved seed became public when the scientific journal Nature published a story about it Tuesday.

The corn seed was probably safe. America's food supply and plant and animal stocks weren't harmed and remain safe to eat, according to officials of the seed company and the federal government.

But the government's secrecy about the mistake—one affecting the public food supply—raises serious concerns, according to independent experts.

Spokesmen for the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency said there was no need to notify the public because the government had determined that Bt 10 was safe. In addition, the USDA is investigating the whole incident involving the seed company, which faces up to $500,000 in fines, Agriculture Department spokesman Jim Rogers said.

"We're gathering evidence that we may need in front of a judge," Rogers said. "If there was a health risk, you would have heard about it and there would have been a recall."

Syngenta, a Swiss-based company, distributed the unapproved genetically altered corn seed, called

Bt 10. It mixed the Bt 10 with a near-identical and approved corn seed called Bt 11, company officials said Tuesday afternoon in a hastily called news conference. The Bt 10 was modified with a gene from the pesticide-like bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.

"Most of the corn is used for industrial and animal use," Syngenta spokeswoman Sarah Hull said. "It may have gotten into the food supply, but regardless, the proteins are deemed safe and there's no food concern."

Remaining seeds have been destroyed or isolated, Hull said.

The unapproved seeds grew into 37,000 U.S. acres of corn over four years. That involves one-one-hundredth of 1 percent of the corn acreage in America, Hull said.

Sygenta's U.S. headquarters is in Greensboro, N.C. It runs its seed operation out of Golden Valley, Minn.

"I personally don't see it would be a major issue," said Kendall Lamkey, the head of Iowa State University's plant-breeding center.

But the way the federal government kept the mistake secret is alarming, Lamkey said, and may undermine public confidence in the growing field of genetically modified crops.

"The whole GMO (genetically modified organism) controversy surrounds a lack of transparency on both (the part of) the companies and regulatory agencies," said Lamkey, who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel in 2002 on the environmental impact of genetically modified crops. "There's too much secrecy."

In mid-December, Syngenta told the EPA, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration about the mistake, Hull said.

EPA scientists reviewed seven packets of information from Syngenta from Jan. 7 to March 10, and "as more data came in, the confidence of our scientific determination (of no risk) increased," EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said in an e-mail. "Had there been a human health concern, we would have alerted the public immediately."

That's not acceptable, said Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts University environmental-policy professor who's a longtime foe of genetically modified crops.

"They have both a moral and legal obligation to reveal violations," Krimsky said. "This is a government that's operating in a stealth manner that wants to keep bad news from the public."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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