Europeans are furious. Japanese and South Koreans are concerned. Americans are unperturbed.
The varying reactions to US exports of Bt10 - a type of genetically modified corn that Swiss agrochemicals company Syngenta AG (SYT) mistakenly sold without regulatory approval to US farmers - underscore stark differences in consumer attitudes towards new biotech foods.
Governments around the globe are clamoring to put in place new controls in order to calm consumer fears, but this case won’t help. That’s because the Bt10 saga exposes errors by a big biotechnology company, weaknesses in US regulatory controls and an inability on the part of regulators in importing countries to detect the presence of GMOs.
The EU responded Wednesday by imposing controls on imports from the US of corn gluten and brewer’s grain, types of animal feed it says are most likely to be contaminated.
Earlier it looked as though the Bt10 case could spark another trade row after the US branded the EU’s plans to control imports an “overreaction.”
EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou flew to the US Sunday to dampen mounting tensions. On Monday he met with Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester Crawford and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. The commissioner assured the US that disruption should be kept to a minimum because a test for Bt10 is likely to be available soon allowing importers to meet the new tougher import criteria, according to EU officials.
US consumers have embraced genetically modified products and appear unfazed by the thought that they may have consumed some products containing Bt10 - corn is used to make sweeteners in sodas - because it’s considered safe by US authorities.
Europeans remain highly skeptical about biotech foods, a legacy of green traditions and strong doubts about the safety of such food for diners and the environment. Scares such as “mad cow” disease and dioxin contamination of chicken and pork contaminated have made Europeans distrustful of the ability of national governments and EU regulators to provide them with adequate information and protection.
For six years the EU imposed a moratorium on new biotech food and animal feed. The ban only ended last May when the EU Commission approved a strain of sweet corn developed by Syngenta.
Four weeks ago Syngenta told US regulators that it had mistakenly sold Bt10 seeds to farmers in four US states thinking they were Bt11 seeds. The majority of grain grown is used for animal feed and as feedstock for industrial processes. Only a small portion is used for human consumption as cereals, sweeteners and thickening agents.
The US Department of Agriculture has fined Syngenta $375,000 and ordered it to destroy any remaining stocks of the product. All current plantings in the US and seed stock have been identified and either destroyed or quarantined for future destruction. No Bt10 will be grown in the US in 2005.
The USDA also said that in its opinion the product poses “no hazards to health, safety or the environment.” The US regulator bases its analysis on the fact that the protein in Bt10 is similar to the one in Bt11, which is fully authorized for feed and food in the EU, Asia and the US
The EU, however, said it was concerned about Bt10 particularly after Syngenta revealed that, unlike Bt11, it contains a gene conferring resistance to ampicillin, a commonly used antibiotic. The US authorities failed immediately to share this information with the EU Commission, sparking ire in Brussels. Syngenta says the gene has been switched off and therefore poses no threat.
The EU Commission has no power to fine Syngenta but EU law requires it to prevent genetically modified products from entering Europe without authorization.
The measures, in effect in all 25 EU member states, require companies to prove consignments of the two products are free of Bt10 corn before they can be sold in Europe. As yet there is no evidence that the Bt10 has entered the human food chain in Europe.
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