FOLLOWING a formal investigation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced May 29 that it had detected the presence of genetically engineered (GE) glyphosate-resistant wheat in Oregon.
USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) released test results of plant samples from a farm in the state that indicated the presence of a glyphosate-resistant wheat variety Monsanto was authorized to field test in 16 states between 1998 and 2005.
APHIS said it was notified by an Oregon State University researcher on May 3 that initial tests of wheat samples from an Oregon farm indicated the possible presence of the GE variety, despite the fact that no GE wheat varieties are approved for sale in the U.S., nor are any in commercial production at this time. Field testing of the variety in Oregon was last authorized in 2001.
USDA was quick to assure consumers that the situation in no way presented a food safety concern as the Food & Drug Administration completed a voluntary consultation on the safety of food and feed derived from the wheat variety in question in 2004 and determined that the variety is as safe as any non-GE wheat currently on the market.
"We are taking this situation very seriously and have launched a formal investigation," said Michael Firko, acting deputy administrator for APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services. "We are collaborating with state, industry and trading partners on this situation and are committed to providing timely information about our findings."
Responding to the situation, Monsanto said it would work in concert with USDA to "get to the bottom" of the wheat detection but reiterated that there are no food, feed or environmental safety concerns associated with the presence of the Roundup Ready gene if it were to be found in wheat.
The company said it discontinued its Roundup Ready wheat program nine years ago, and the program's closeout was "rigorous, well-documented and audited."
"We understand that USDA's findings are based solely on testing samples from a single 80-acre field on one farm in Oregon, which overwintered from the previous growing season," the company said in a statement. "While USDA's results are unexpected, there is considerable reason to believe that the presence of the Roundup Ready trait in wheat, if determined to be valid, is very limited."
Monsanto said USDA's findings were unusual given that more than 500 million acres of wheat have been grown since the company discontinued its program. The alleged Oregon discovery is the first time Roundup Ready wheat has been found outside authorized field tests.
Furthermore, the company said it would conduct a "vigorous investigation" to validate and address any presence of a Monsanto Roundup Ready event in commercial wheat seed. The company said it was already working with USDA as part of the APHIS investigation to determine if wheat from the field in Oregon could contain the Roundup Ready trait.
However, Monsanto said USDA had not provided any details about the testing performed by APHIS as part of its investigation or provided the company with the necessary samples to verify the findings.
While the finding is not a food safety issue, it could become a concern for U.S. trading partners. According to data from the Oregon Wheat Commission, 90% of the state's wheat production is exported.
Japan became the first major trading partner to react to the news, suspending imports of U.S. white wheat and feed wheat May 30 and cancelling at least one tender already on the books.
Toru Hisadome, an official with Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, told multiple news agencies that the country was in touch with U.S. officials to determine the "safety" of U.S. wheat exports but would refrain from buying U.S.-origin wheat for the time being.
Other Southeast Asian countries, including significant importers South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, said they were watching the situation but had announced no plans to halt imports.
Wheat industry organizations reiterated USDA's assertion that no evidence exists to indicate that the GE wheat variety had entered commerce. In a joint statement, the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates added that the situation in no way represented a food safety issue.
"We know it is important to understand how this situation occurred, and we have confidence that APHIS will be able to determine that as soon as possible," the two groups said. "Nothing is more important than the trust we've earned with our customers at home and around the world by providing a reliable supply of high-quality wheat."
Editor's Note: U.S. Wheat Associates director of communications Steve Mercer discusses the GE wheat situation and potential export market impact in the "Feedstuffs In Focus" podcast at www.Feedstuffs.com.