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Groups Urge California to Deny Approval of Pharmaceutical Rice Crop

Thursday, April 1, 2004
Michael Hansen, Consumers Union: 914-378-2452
Elisa Odabashian, Consumers Union: 415-431-6747
Dan Jacobson, Environment California: 916-743-5356

Ventria BioScience is Seeking Fast Track Approval of Controversial Crop

(SACRAMENTO, CA) – A group of consumer and environmental organizations today urged the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to turn down a request to grant emergency approval for a controversial planting of rice genetically engineered to produce pharmaceutical drugs. If grown, this would be the first time that a genetically engineered food crop was planted for commercial pharmaceutical production.
On March 29, the California Rice Commission, by a slim 6-5 majority, gave a green light to Ventria’s proposal to grow rice genetically engineered with artificial human genes to produce lactoferrin and lysozyme. Ventria is interested in these two proteins because of their bacteria and fungi-killing properties. The company has requested an emergency exemption from any further review by CDFA, and the agency has ten days to grant or deny it.
“This pharmaceutical rice crop raises a raft of serious public health, environmental and economic concerns,” said Elisa Odabashian, Senior Policy Analyst for Consumers Union’s West Coast Regional Office. “It makes absolutely no sense to consider this request on a 10-day, fast track basis with no opportunity for public discussion or input.”
In a letter signed by Consumers Union, Environment California, Friends of the Earth, Organic Consumers Association, and Sierra Club California, the groups urged CDFA Secretary A.G. Kawamura to reject the fast track request and hold public hearings on the application. The letter notes that if the crop is grown in the open air, public exposure to the drugs in the rice is likely. The health impacts of pharmaceutical rice on people who might be inadvertently exposed to it have not been properly evaluated, but could be serious. The letter also noted that the bacteria-killing properties of the pharmaceutical rice could have negative impacts on beneficial microbes in the environment and wildlife.
“There is some evidence that these proteins might cause severe allergic reactions in some people,” said Michael Hansen, Phd, Senior Research Associate with Consumers Union’s Consumer Policy Institute. “If Ventria’s pharmaceutical rice got mixed up with regular rice, for example in the milling process, the public could be exposed without knowing it.”
In addition, the planting of Ventria’s pharmaceutical rice could have serious negative impacts on California’s rice industry. Any contamination of food rice would lead to a decline or end to rice exports to countries such as Japan and South Korea. And contamination of pure food rice with genes for lactoferrin and lysozyme would result in rice recalls since this would violate U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules. The National Food Processors Association has stated that the “risk of contamination of the food or feed supply is just too great.”
Because of these and many other health, environmental and economic risks, Consumers Union believes that genetic engineering of plants to produce pharmaceuticals and chemicals should be restricted to plants that are not used for food, and should be stringently contained in enclosed facilities like greenhouses. The Union of Concerned Scientists and Center for Food Safety have also sent letters to CDFA urging the agency to reject Ventria’s application.
“A decision to allow commercial planting of pharmaceutical rice is too important and far reaching to be fast-tracked by the state,” said Dan Jacobson, Legislative Director of California Environment. “Secretary Kawamura should stop the clock on this proposal and conduct a full and thorough scientific review of this controversial application.”
Click here for a copy of the consumer and environmental group’s letter.