GM rice incident showed flaws in contingency plans, say NGOs
to improve its emergency system at yesterday's review meeting on
the unauthorised GM rice incident.
The meeting re-evaluated the FSA's handling of the discovery of the illegal LL Rice 601, unapproved for human consumption, in American long grain rice supplies for export in August 2006. Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "The incident revealed a vulnerability with the agency's lack of knowledge on the structure of the market and where the major food products went to. Next time it could be a harmful poison, and they will have no idea what foods have been contaminated with it." The FSA would not comment on exactly what was discussed at the meeting, but said a report is being drafted and will be considered by its Emergencies Committee, alongside a draft action plan. These are not expected to be published until next year. However, Oxborrow said that the agency did make admissions at the meeting, saying that improvements needed to be made should such a problem with contamination arise again. It is unclear how far the agency will go with such improvements to its system. Months after the realization that GM rice had made it into UK products, it was found in the catering sector, according to Friends of the Earth who said there is a lack of clarity on when a food alert should be sent out and the system needs improving. "The FSA needs some way of engaging areas of the industry that are not directly involved in the Food and Drink Federation," continued Oxborrow. A judicial review already took place in February after the environmental pressure group claimed the FSA failed in its legal obligation to check for contaminated rice on the market in the UK. Although it found in favour of the FSA, the judge did highlight a number of mistakes it made in dealing with the emergency. One of the criticisms in the judgement was that the food alert system was insufficient. In a statement issued in response to the judgement, the FSA said: "The FSA did not issue a food alert in relation to GM rice as it had concluded at that time that there was not a food safety risk in relation to the contaminated rice. "Independent of the review of this GM rice incident, the FSA is currently reviewing the use of food alerts as a means of contacting local authorities during incidents. In addition, the FSA is developing a communications protocol to clarify further communications to all stakeholders and will be consulting stakeholders on this with a view to having it in place in early 2008." LL Rice 601 is one of a number of GM rice lines developed by the biotech company Bayer that were engineered to tolerate the herbicide, glufosinate ammonium. When it was found in exported commercial batches, it was only at the experimental stage. But in November last year it was approved in the US. Oxborrow said: "This was the biggest GM food contamination incident ever to have hit the UK, and the FSA's handling of it was completely inadequate. The FSA must stop bending over backwards for the food and GM industries, and genuinely put the interests of consumers first".