The rice -- a special long-grain variety created by Bayer CropScience called LL601 -- invaded non-genetically modified crops in nearby fields after Bayer abandoned its test plots in 2001. Bayer applied for approval of LL601 with the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shortly after the contamination was reported in August.
Bayer is currently facing a class-action lawsuit filed by hundreds of farmers in Missouri and Arkansas over the approval of the GM rice, which has contaminated non-GM rice supplies and severely affected rice exports. Because European officials refuse to accept imports of U.S. genetically engineered rice -- dubbed "Frankenfood" -- farmers whose crops have been invaded by LL601 have seen a 10 percent drop in prices since September. Total export losses are estimated at $150 million.
The USDA's decision to deem LL601 safe was based on the rice's similarity to previously approved rice varieties. Essentially, the USDA permitted Bayer to skip several of the standard safety tests because LL601 -- which is designed to resist Bayer's Liberty weed killer -- is similar to two types of approved Bayer biotech rice that the company never commercialized because farmers did not want them in their crops.
"The protein in the company's herbicide-tolerant rice varieties ... is well known to regulators, who have affirmed the rice poses no human health or environmental concern," said Bayer spokesman Greg Coffey, who confirmed that the company does not plan to sell LL601.
However, according to Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, the USDA's rapid approval of LL601 highlights the agency's protection of the biotechnology industry.
"USDA is telling agricultural biotechnology companies that it doesn't matter if you're negligent, if you break the rules, if you contaminate the food supply with untested genetically engineered crops, we'll bail you out," Mendelson said. "In effect, the USDA is sanctioning an 'approval-by-contamination' policy that can only increase the likelihood of untested genetically engineered crops entering the food supply in the future."
Consumer advocate Mike Adams, author of "Grocery Warning," said the approval is "yet another blatant example" of the USDA's willingness to protect the business interests of influential food producers.
"Rather than declaring an ecological emergency due to widespread crop contamination by this unnatural strain of rice, the USDA simply rubber-stamped it as safe for everyone, bypassing the safety testing required by law and effectively whitewashing the ecological ramifications," Adams said.
Though the rice has been found safe to eat and is found in a number of varieties of GM corn, cotton and canola, the 300 farmers who are suing Bayer say approving LL601 as "safe" does nothing to change Europe's stance on not allowing GM rice imports.
"Unless the U.S. export countries change their view and begin to regain a sense of confidence in U.S. rice, the U.S. rice farmers are still hurt and this whole ruling is illusory in its effect," said Adam Levitt, an attorney for roughly 300 of the farmers suing Bayer. "It's not a victory at all, because at the end of the day people are not purchasing U.S. rice and the exports markets are absolutely closed still."
Though the USDA's ruling on LL601 means Bayer cannot be held responsible for introducing an illegal variety of GM rice into U.S. crops, the company is still under investigation for allowing the engineered rice to escape its abandoned test plots.
USDA spokeswoman Rachel Iadicicco said Bayer might have violated the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulations for handling the genetically altered rice. APHIS was designed to protect ecosystems, natural resources, agribusiness, agricultural exports and consumer health and safety from threats such as non-compliant biotechnology events and invasive species.
"The deregulation [of LL601] doesn't preclude any legal action against the company for violation of APHIS regulations," Iadicicco said. "Violators of APHIS regulations can face criminal penalties, civil penalties and remediation costs."