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Gene-altered rice from China found in EU: greens

Jeremy Smith / Reuters | September 5 2006

European consumers may be at risk from unauthorized genetically modified (GMO) rice grown in China after a biotech strain was found in products sold in three EU countries, two leading environment groups said on Tuesday.

The Chinese rice, modified to resist certain insects, was detected in samples of rice stick noodles in France and Germany, and also in rice vermicelli in Britain, Greenpeace International said, citing the results of two rounds of laboratory tests.

Its report, compiled with Friends of the Earth Europe (FoE), did not indicate the possible quantities involved but said the GMO rice had been identified in different product brands that were on sale at Asian specialty stores and Asian restaurants.

Five samples out of 27 tested positive for the unauthorized rice strain, officials at the two groups said. The EU does not yet permit the sale, import or marketing of any biotech rice on the territory of its 25 member countries.

The GMO rice, an experimental variety, contained a protein that might cause allergenic reactions in humans, they said.

It was supposed to be used only in field trials, and not approved for commercial growing due to concerns over its safety.

Chinese government officials were not immediately available to comment on the reported presence of the GMO rice in China.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said it would write to the Chinese authorities about the green groups' findings, adding that they should send their samples to EU governments and the bloc's main biotech test center in Italy.

It criticized Europe's rice industry for failing to prevent unauthorized GMO strains from entering EU markets.

"The presence of traces of unauthorized GMOs in food in the EU is illegal. It is the responsibility of operators to ensure that they do not place on the market food which does not comply with EU law," Commission spokeswoman Barbara Helfferich said.

"Operators are clearly not doing enough," she said.

European consumers are well known for their wariness toward GMO foods, but the biotech industry insists that its products are perfectly safe and no different to conventional foods.

SECOND RICE CASE IN THREE WEEKS

A French government spokeswoman said samples of rice products had been taken from the warehouse of an importer named in the report and were now being analyzed. The authorities had also asked that the products be kept in the warehouse until the test results were known.

In Germany, Junior Agriculture Minister Gert Lindemann said the authorities were undertaking checks.

Dutch company Heuschen & Schrouff, one of the importers cited in the greens' report, said it was investigating the case and would check with its suppliers.

"We have no comment. This information is very new to us, we received it just half an hour ago. We import the products so we are checking with our suppliers. Our quality department is also involved," commercial manager Bernard van Schaik told Reuters.

Heuschen & Schrouff Oriental Foods Trading BV says it is the market-leading distributor of authentic Asian food in Germany, Austria and the Benelux countries.

A spokesman for Seewoo Foods Ltd., Britain's largest supplier of Chinese foods which was also cited in the report, was not immediately available for comment.

The discovery of the rice comes just weeks after the EU-25 tightened requirements on its U.S. long-grain imports to prove the absence of herbicide-resistant LL Rice 601 -- a GMO type marketed by Germany's Bayer AG and grown in the United States -- that was found in samples intended for commercial use.

"It is shocking that contamination with illegal genetically modified rice has occurred for the second time in three weeks," FoE's GMO campaigner Adrian Bebb said in a statement.

"These incidents must be prevented from happening again. Consumers in Europe deserve better than panic measures each time the latest crisis breaks," he said.

(Additional reporting by David Evans in Paris, Michael Hogan in Hamburg, Anna Mudeva in Amsterdam, Nigel Hunt in London, Nao Nakanishi in Hong Kong)

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