SAN FRANCISCO − Federal regulators recently fined two biotech companies more than $5,600 for improperly handling genetically modified crops, but said they aren’t investigating the University of California, Davis for its role in unknowingly shipping engineered tomato seeds to researchers around the world.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture fined Seminis Inc. of Oxnard $2,500 for shipping unlabeled genetically engineered seeds to the university, the agency reported last week. UC Davis, which operates one of the world’s top tomato seed banks, mistakenly distributed the modified tomato seeds to scientists who ordered conventionally bred ones.
Davis officials said they believe none of the seeds ended up in the food supply because all were destined for research purposes. What’s more, the USDA approved the genetically engineered tomatoes for human consumption in 1994.
A statement released by Seminis said the company has since tightened its quality control procedures and called the fine “fair and proportional to the nature of the incident.”
Biotechnology foes, though, called both fines lenient and fretted the USDA’s action underscored the agency’s unwillingness to tighten regulations of biotech crops.
“It’s a slap on the wrist,” said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the consumer watchdog nonprofit Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. “It’s ultimately weak and it doesn’t bode well for how we are going to regulate these crops.”
The USDA also fined The Scotts Co. of Marysville, Ohio $3,125 for failing to immediately notify authorities that grass seed genetically engineered to tolerate weed killer escaped from a test field in Madras, Ore.
“We had obligations to report in a more timely manner than we did,” said Scotts spokesman Jim King. “It was an oversight on our part. It was a communications breakdown.”
Scotts officials said the escape was caused by a wind storm and unrelated to a report released by U.S Environmental Protection Agency scientists that showed genetically modified grass seed had blown as far as 12 miles from the test plot in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and bred with conventionally bred grass.
The study led to renewed calls for tighter “gene flow” regulations, especially from farmers who promise customers that their products are free of genetically modified material.
Scotts has applied to the USDA to market the herbicide-resistant grass to golf courses, and the agency is requiring the company to conduct a comprehensive study of the effects the genetically engineered seed will have on the environment.
Last year, the USDA fined ProdiGene Inc. of College Station, Texas, $250,000 for failing to completely remove corn genetically engineered to produce a pig vaccine before growing soybeans.