UCD cleared in seed mix-up

Researchers unknowingly sent out altered tomato seeds for seven years.

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2004

Two West Coast mix-ups involving genetically engineered seeds ended with modest fines for two companies and no fault for the University of California, Davis, according to federal records made public Tuesday.

Oxnard-based Seminis Inc., the world's largest fruit and vegetable seed company, and The Scotts Co. of Marysville, Ohio, a grass seed giant, are on the hook for penalties totaling $5,625 for violations of rules set to contain biotech genes.

The fines are toward the low end of the scale for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees biotech crop field tests and movement of plants between states. In 2002, for instance, the USDA fined Texas-based ProdiGene Inc. $250,000 after federal inspectors found biotech corn that had been engineered to produce a pharmaceutical compound growing among Nebraska soybeans.

The USDA's most recent penalties indicate a much lower level of agency concern, although the incidents do illustrate the difficulty of containing genetically engineered plants.

Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the consumer watchdog group Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., had mixed opinions about the USDA's actions.

"It's good that (USDA is) actually doing some investigations," he said. "But is it window dressing when a company like Scotts gets ... slapped on the wrist and essentially rewarded for their bad actions?"

Seminis was fined $2,500 for shipping biotech tomato seeds to UC Davis, which runs one of the world's top tomato seed banks, without properly identifying the seeds.

Davis researchers, unaware that the seeds were genetically engineered, shipped them to scientists around the world who had requested conventional seeds.

Last December, embarrassed university officials said the mistake had been going on for seven years.

On Tuesday, they said that new protocols have been put in place to assure research samples are properly tagged. For instance, the university checked its other tomato seed varieties obtained from seed companies and found them negative for biotech genes. It now requires documentation on how donated seeds were developed.

"We are satisfied that the protocols that are now in place for labeling, storing and shipping of seeds will serve to prevent future errors when seeds are distributed to researchers around the world," Agriculture Dean Neal Van Alfen said in an e-mail.

USDA spokesman Jim Rogers said agency files indicate Davis was cleared of wrongdoing. "It doesn't look like anything was pursued there," he said.

Instead, USDA focused on a 1996 mix-up by Petoseed Co., one of the predecessors of Seminis.

A statement by Seminis called the penalty "fair and proportional to the nature of the incident." It said the problem appears to have been an administrative error that confused a conventional tomato with a similar biotech variety.

The biotech tomatoes, which had been cleared for human consumption by the FDA, were engineered to alter the thickness of tomato paste.

"While our handling procedures are more strict today ... we have used this case to review our current quality controls," the company said.

In the other case, USDA levied a $6,250 fine against Scotts for failing to notify federal officials immediately after an accidental release of biotech grass seed in Oregon in 2003. USDA said half of that penalty was suspended.

The investigation centered on creeping bentgrass, popular on golf courses, developed by Scotts and St. Louis-based biotech giant Monsanto Co. Their product is engineered to withstand sprays of Monsanto's signature herbicide Roundup.

That genetic trick, also common in soybeans, allows for easier weed control because the weedkiller doesn't damage the biotech plants.

Monsanto, which commonly licenses its technology to other companies, was not penalized.

Scotts spokesman Jim King said the penalty was related to a wind storm that swept across Scotts' fields and scattered grass seeds outside the test plot.

King said Scotts properly alerted neighbors and the state, but that it took nearly a month to tell USDA about the wind-blown seeds. "We had a communication shortfall on our side," he said. "We should have notified (USDA) within a few days."

King said the penalty was not related to a report by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists in September that documented genes from Scotts' Oregon bentgrass plots in related grasses 13 miles away.

The USDA said Scotts faces an ongoing investigation. Industry watchers speculate the investigation is related to EPA's findings.

Norm Ellstrand, a genetics professor at the University of California, Riverside, said EPA's report raises questions about whether Scotts followed rules to contain grass pollen. "It seems to me that there is a serious compliance violation," he said.

About the writer:

Biotech fines

$2,500
Company: Seminis Inc. of Oxnard
Why: Shipped biotech tomato seeds to the University of California, Davis, without properly identifying the seeds.

$3,125
Company: The Scotts Co. of Marysville, Ohio
Why: Failed to notify officials immediately after the accidental release of biotech grass seed in Oregon in 2003.