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Potential Conflict of Interest Exposed on Pharmaceutical Rice Decision

Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Rebecca Spector – 415-561-2524 or 415-595-0478
Elisa Odabashian – 415-431-6747 or 415-572-0036
Dan Jacobsen – 916-743-5356

Board’s Legal Counsel Has Ties to Biotech Firms and Gave Industry-Friendly Advice

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – George Soares, the chief counsel to the California Rice Certification Act Advisory Board, may have a conflict of interest that could have clouded his advice to the Board when it recently approved guidelines for planting a controversial rice crop genetically engineered to produce pharmaceutical drugs. In a letter sent to the Board today, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), Consumers Union, and Environment California highlighted the financial ties between Soares’ law firm and biotech companies and urged the Advisory Board to retain independent legal counsel now that it has been instructed by a state agency to reconsider its decision. The groups called on the Board to exercise its full statutory authority to evaluate the proposal and bar the pharmaceutical rice crop.
“We question Mr. Soares’ objectivity in advising the Advisory Board on this precedent-setting pharmaceutical rice proposal given his law firm’s financial ties to other biotech companies who may have a stake in this matter,” said Peter Jenkins, CFS staff attorney and policy analyst. “At the very least, these financial ties raise the appearance of a conflict of interest that undermines public confidence.”
On March 29, the Advisory Board narrowly approved a protocol for Ventria BioScience to grow pharmaceutical rice genetically engineered to produce lactoferrin and lysozyme. The Board had been advised during the meeting by Soares that it did not have the authority to deny Ventria’s application nor to consider the potential economic and environmental impacts of the pharmaceutical rice crop. Soares indicated that the Board was only empowered to establish a protocol outlining the terms and conditions under which the crop could be planted.
The letter points out that, while advising the Commission that it had limited authority on the Ventria rice proposal, Mr. Soares is the managing Partner of Kahn, Soares, and Conway, a law firm which represents other producers of genetically engineered crops. These corporations include Dow and Syngenta. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s database, Syngenta has conducted at least nine genetically engineered rice crop field tests, including at least one in California.
The consumer groups’ letter to the Advisory Board notes that the statute creating the Advisory Board does not require it to approve such protocols. Further, the groups maintain that the statute gives the Advisory Board the authority to consider all relevant factors when evaluating proposed new varieties of genetically engineered rice crops, including potential environmental, human and animal health, and economic impacts.
“This pharmaceutical rice proposal raises a whole range of very serious public health, environmental, and economic concerns,” said Dan Jacobsen, Legislative Director of Environment California. “It is outrageous that the Advisory Board was advised that it did not have the authority to consider these issues.”
Finally, the letter notes that a third party that could be retained by the California Rice Commission to verify Ventria’s compliance with the federal permit requirements also may have a potential conflict of interest. In the past, the Commission has relied on the California Crop Improvement Association (CCIA) to conduct such third party verifications. A representative of the CCIA serves as a member of the Advisory Board and voted in favor of the Ventria application when it was approved by a slim 6 to 5 majority. CCIA stands to receive monetary payments from the approval if it is retained to verify Ventria’s compliance.
After the Advisory Board approved a protocol for Ventria’s rice crop last March, the company sought fast track approval for its planting from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). The CDFA rejected Ventria’s request for emergency approval and sent the proposal back to the Board for further review. The CDFA instructed the Advisory Board to reconsider its decision and to make sure that it did not approve the application unless Ventria had secured all of the necessary federal approvals, verified by a third party. If the Ventria crop is approved and grown, it will be the first time that a genetically engineered food crop is planted for commercial pharmaceutical production.
“As the Advisory Board reconsiders its decision, we hope that it will evaluate the full environmental, public health, and economic consequences of this misguided proposal,” added Elisa Odabashian, Senior Policy Analyst for Consumers Union’s West Coast Office. “We urge the Advisory Board to use its full statutory authority to deny this controversial pharmaceutical rice crop.”