|December 1, 2004,
Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer Sac Bee, CropChoice.com:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
$2,500 Company: Seminis Inc. of Oxnard
Why: Shipped biotech tomato seeds to the University
of California, Davis, without properly identifying the
$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
The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102