Biotech seeds shipped in error

Over a 7-year period, UCD sent researchers the tomato samples.

By Mike Lee and Edie Lau -- Bee Staff Writers

Published Friday, December 19, 2003

Genetically engineered tomato seeds from the University of California, Davis, were shipped accidentally to researchers around the world over the last seven years because university scientists didn't realize the seeds contained biotech genes.

Officials at Davis, one of the nation's top-ranking agriculture research universities, on Thursday announced a recall of about 30 seed samples, including those sent to demonstration gardens in England and Ethiopia, and to researchers in 14 countries.

The incident marks the latest in a string of failures across North America to contain biotech genes, raising questions about whether biotechnology can coexist with conventional or organic farming.

"This creates an example of how easily (genes) can move around, because you cannot see them," said Norman Ellstrand, director of the Biotechnology Impacts Center at UC Riverside. Scientists at Riverside were among those sent the mislabeled seeds.

As a result of the error, which was discovered by a genetic engineer in a different laboratory at UC Davis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched a formal investigation, UC Davis is considering a new seed-testing protocol, and the seed company is reviewing its internal controls.

"We are embarrassed that there was this type of mix-up," said Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis. "We don't want this type of thing to happen, clearly."

There's no food safety risk involved. The biotech gene had been cleared for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration in 1994 and federal regulators say there's no evidence that the seed was used for anything other than research.

However, UC Davis has not been able to locate Life for Ethiopian Children, one of the groups that took seed for a garden.

While the reasons for the mix-up remain a mystery, the problem dates back to 1996, the dawn of the biotech age.

That year, a Woodland company called Petoseed -- now Seminis -- donated about 5,000 tomato seeds to UC Davis, where the seed bank was running low on a line the university had developed, known as UC-82B.

Now, it appears that what Petoseed provided actually was a biotech variety similar to the Flavr Savr tomato developed by Calgene, the world's first genetically engineered crop to reach the consumer market, in 1994. Both have an engineered tomato gene that retards softening.

John Yoder, chairman of Davis' Department of Vegetable Crops -- which oversees the seed bank -- said the mix-up went undetected for years because the biotech tomatoes looked just like the other tomatoes.

The seed bank, formally called the Charles M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center, is a storehouse for tomato seeds, meant to safeguard the gene pool of tomatoes from around the world. The center is named for the late Charles Rick, a UC Davis scientist who personally fetched most of the 1,000 or so wild strains housed in the center.

The mistake announced Thursday has prompted seed bank officials to consider regular DNA testing of modern domestic varieties that come to the center. But such a program likely would cost more than $50,000 a year.

Yoder said the center would not have recalled mislabeled seeds if they had been bred conventionally.

But university officials thought the mistake deserved special action because biotechnology is politically sensitive -- especially in Europe, where consumers are more skeptical about genetic tinkering.

For biotech opponents, the incident underscores what they have been claiming for years: that current systems are inadequate to segregate biotech crops from other plants.

"It's disturbing, but it fits into a pattern," said Michelle Marvier, assistant professor of biology at Santa Clara University. "This kind of thing is going to happen over and over again, no matter how careful we try to be, and next time it might not be something so benign."

Every year since 2000, the biotech industry has been rocked by a major contamination case, starting when genetically modified corn was found growing in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it was illegal.

The next year, a variety of feed corn called StarLink that wasn't approved for human consumption was detected in taco shells, prompting a food scare and the recall of more than 300 corn products.

In the fall of 2002, traces of corn engineered to grow proteins for a pig vaccine were detected in Nebraska soybeans.

The Davis incident, however, highlights another route -- seed swaps -- for genetic contamination and shows that fruits and vegetables aren't exempt from troubles that have haunted corn, a wind-pollinated plant highly susceptible to gene pollution.

Allen Stevens, who developed the UC-82B tomato, later went to work for Petoseed.

Now retired, he was unaware of the seed mix-up until called by The Bee.

"Every time transgenics get out unexpectedly it creates a bit of a problem, because people who are opposed to transgenics, that's their big argument ... that we lose control of it," he said. "The fact that this stuff was distributed from a university germplasm center ... adds fuel to the fire."

At the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., legal director Joe Mendelson said everyone involved with the Davis tomatoes got lucky, both that the seed had been reviewed by regulators and that the incident didn't involve a major export crop such as wheat.

Trouble at Davis, he said, means problems could happen anywhere. "There is a setting for those mix-ups to happen."

The FDA said Thursday that it likely wouldn't investigate because the Davis incident involved research seeds, not food.

The USDA, however, is concerned that mislabeled biotech seeds were able to move across the country.

Officials said they are assessing whether Davis or Oxnard-based Seminis violated provisions in the Plant Protection Act aimed at protecting crops from threats created by biotechnology.

Seminis issued a statement Thursday saying the problem appears to be an administrative error.

It added that its seed-handling procedures are stricter today than in 1996.

The company, which does not sell any tomatoes developed through biotechnology, said it's working with UC Davis and the USDA to determine how the mix-up happened.

Both company and university officials expressed regret for the hassle they'd caused for researchers whose tomato experiments were ruined by the error.

At California State University, Sacramento, Nick Ewing, chairman of the biological sciences department, received the mislabeled seeds twice.

His first experiment failed when the plants didn't express the genes Ewing and his students thought they'd introduced.

Figuring the mistake was theirs, Ewing's students ordered a second batch of seeds from UC Davis because they considered the stock center an unlikely source of the poor results.

When the same thing happened a second time, Ewing realized something was wrong with the seed.

Just as he was preparing to call UC Davis, the germplasm bank's curator, Roger Chetelat, called with the news.

With two years' worth of experiments ruined, the incident has caused Ewing to rethink his own research on genetically modifying plants to produce medicines.

"The bigger issue is in addressing the safety of the technology," he said. "We're likely going to put (our) project on hold as we consider the implications of this."

About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or Staff writer Tom Knudson contributed to this report.


Based on information supplied by UC Davis on Thursday, 28 groups accidentally received genetically modified tomato seeds over the past seven years. Many are universities, research institutions or demonstration gardens.

Africa: Crops Research Institute (Ghana); Desert Research Center (Egypt); Life for Ethiopian Children (Ethiopia)

Asia: GINO Company Limited (Vietnam); Institute of Vegetables and Flowers (Beijing); KB Company Limited (Vietnam); National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (India)

Australia: University of Sydney

Europe: Agroaxon SA (Greece); CNR-IGV, Research Institute of Plant Genetics (Italy); Crop Design N.V. (Belgium); Eden Project (U.K.); Metapontum Agrobios (Italy); Universitat Jaume I (Spain); Universite Blaise Pascal (France)

North America: Ag-Biotech Inc. (California); CSU Sacramento; Maxygen Corp. (California); National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (Colorado); Oregon State University; the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation (Oklahoma); UC Davis; UC Riverside; University of Arizona; University of Nebraska; USDA/ARS/WRRC/PCE (California); Utah State University

South America: ESALQ/USP (Brazil)