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Escaped Chinese GM rice reaches Europe

September 5, 2006 By Emma Marris This article courtesy of Nature News.

Prevalence of genetically modified foods highlights risks of field trials.

It has been just one week since the European Union ordered the United States to certify its rice exports as transgenic-free, in an attempt to stem the influx of herbicide-tolerant rice across the ocean. Now comes a report that genetically modified (GM) rice from China is already on supermarket shelves in France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Greenpeace International, an environmental organization that campaigns against GM crops, said today that imported rice noodles in Europe contain rice with genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria genes that are often introduced to crops to help them fight off insects. The strain is not approved for human consumption even in China, but has somehow wandered out of field trials and into the food chain there (see ' GM rice forges ahead in China amid concerns over illegal planting'). Now it seems that processed foods made with the rice have made the trip across international borders.

Greenpeace says an independent, reputable lab has confirmed the presence of the genes. They add that the facility wishes to remain anonymous so that it will not be labelled as an activist lab. "They worry about being associated too closely with us," says Jeremy Tager, a campaigner against GM crops who is based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

"It highlights the difficulty of controlling contamination," says Tager. "Human error with so many people involved is quite a large possibility."

It isn't the first time that GM plants have escaped from field trials or the lab. Engineered golf course grass and Bt corn have been found in the wild, for example. And GM strains of rice containing a herbicide-resitance gene, called LL Rice 601, have recently been found in commercial samples of long-grained rice in the United States. The European Union last week introduced rules on rice certification to try and prevent such samples from reaching their shop shelves.

Allergic reaction

The Greenpeace release and report make much of the potential allergenicity of a compound, Cry1Ac, which is found in a pure or slightly altered form in the escaped Chinese GM rice. But Rob Aalberse, a biochemist at the University of Amsterdam specializing in food allergies, says that the risk is likely to be small. "There are no real data to indicate that there is any real risk involved." Studies showing allergic effects in mice, cited by Greenpeace, did not cook the rice, which Aalberse says would decrease the allergenicity.

Besides, Aalberse says, the unapproved rice is already being consumed by many people in China. "If there were anaphylactic events, people would have noticed," he says.

The real problem, says Aalberse, is containment. "Field trials are one thing, but if you are going to grow it for real, I think it will be impossible to contain it."

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