D.C., August 8, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Philip Brasher,
DesMoines Register, 08/06/04: A biotech company
is seeking federal approval to begin regular production
of pharmaceutical corn crops, a move that has alarmed
the U.S. food industry.
The Texas-based company, ProdiGene Inc., gave the biotech
industry a black mark two years ago when it was caught
mismanaging field trials of genetically modified crops
in Iowa and Nebraska.
ProdiGene, which is commercializing two medical products
made from bioengineered corn, has asked the U.S. Agriculture
Department to allow cultivation of the crops in Frio
County, Texas, a thinly populated area southwest of
The Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents
such brands as Kellogg, General Mills, Kraft and Gerber,
opposes the application. In a letter July 28 to the
USDA, the trade group said the government provides inadequate
oversight of crops engineered for pharmaceutical and
"We have long memories of the potential impact
this can have on our companies," said Stephanie
Childs, a group spokeswoman.
Some food companies were required to do nationwide
recalls three years ago, after a variety of biotech
feed corn not approved for human consumption, StarLink,
was found mixed with supplies of food-grade grain.
ProdiGene officials did not return calls seeking comment.
ProdiGene was forced to pay the government about $3
million in penalties and cleanup costs for failing to
prevent its pharmaceutical corn plants from getting
mixed with crops intended for food or animal feed.
ProdiGene's problems, coupled with tighter planting
rules imposed by the USDA in 2003, dealt a sharp setback
to Iowa's hopes of developing bio-farming.
A taxpayer-financed Iowa investment fund bought into
ProdiGene in 2001. Last year, a subsidiary of Iowa-based
Stine Seed Co. purchased a majority ownership in ProdiGene.
However, the food companies' opposition to ProdiGene's
Texas plans highlights the industry's concern about
There were no field trials of pharmaceutical crops
in the state last year, and this year there is just
one, which involves barley, not corn.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America said the Food
and Drug Administration should evaluate the safety of
pharmaceutical or industrial crops before they are approved
"Right now, as it stands, federal regulations
say that if any of these plant-made pharmaceuticals
make it into the food supply, we have an adulterated
product," Childs said. "It's our brands that
get damaged. We're not ready to take that risk for a
product that we're not developing."
The USDA took the unusual step of writing environmental
assessments for the ProdiGene crops because the company
plans repeated plantings during the next several years.
USDA analysts concluded there would be little health
or environmental risk from the corn crops, in part because
little other corn is grown in Frio County. Although
the location was not disclosed, the ProdiGene crops
will be at least a mile away from any other corn with
which they could cross-pollinate, the studies said.
The corn would be used to manufacture trypsin, used
for insulin, vaccines and other products, and aprotinin,
which also has a number of medical applications. Both
products are now derived from cattle tissue.
The company will inspect the crops weekly at first
and then daily during pollination, the USDA said. Several
vegetable crops that will grow nearby, including onions
and cabbage, will be picked by hand to ensure that no
corn seeds are mixed with them.
Two trade groups representing companies that process
and ship grain - the National Grain and Feed Association
and the North American Export Grain Association - told
the USDA they were pleased the Texas farm is "far
removed from major corn producing areas."
But Gregory Jaffe, who follows the biotech industry
for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a
consumer advocacy group, said the USDA released insufficient
information about the site to judge whether the crop
was a threat. He also shares the food industry's concern
about ProdiGene's plans.
"We should not engineer any food crop and allow
it to be grown on a commercial scale without FDA determining
that that crop is safe if it gets into the food supply,"