Mexican Rice Shipments Cause Stir Over U.S. Genetic Engineering

May 23, 2007

With a freedom-of-information request under Mexico's 4-year-old Federal Transparency and Governmental Public Information Access Act, Greenpeace Mexico revealed what the federal Health Secretariat knew since October: that 47 of 51 samples of US rice import shipments tested positive for contamination by genetically engineered Bayer CropScience LLRICE 601 and LLRICE 62 strains.

Although commercialization and human consumption of the genetically modified rice was illegal in Mexico, an undetermined amount was allowed into Mexican wholesale outlets, supermarkets, and corner stores. The outcry was predictable.

On March 13, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and US President George W. Bush, meeting in Yucatan, Mexico, were greeted by protesters demonstrating against the contaminated rice. The same day, the Mexican Agriculture Secretariat sent a letter to customs agents at the northern border, stating that together with the Health Secretariat it would now "require every shipment of rice imported to Mexico to show a certificate specifying that it is free of genetically modified organisms." The officials also said inspectors "should take samples of the rice shipments coming into the country so the Health Secretariat can verify compliance."

Quick mobilization by the US rice lobby, the USDA, and the US Embassy in Mexico headed off a full-blown Mexican embargo like those in effect in the European Union and Japan since conventional US rice was found to be tainted with experimental engineered varieties last year. Had Mexican authorities maintained a hard line, 63 percent of the value of US rice exports would have been affected by the presence of the LL601 genetically engineered trait in the US long grain supply. Mexico is the largest single export destination for US rice, and in 2006 that trade topped 805,500 metric tons worth a record $205 million in sales.

  • USA Rice Federation Contact: Bob Cummings, 703- 236-1473.

US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns had met with Mexico's Agriculture Secretary Alberto Cardenas and Economy Secretary Eduardo Sojo to sign a Memorandum of Understanding re-establishing the US-Mexico Consultative Committee on Agriculture (CCA) on March 6, one day after private certifiers announced the genetic contamination of conventional US Clearfield 131 rice seed.

  • USDA Contacts: Keith Williams, 202-720-4623; or Mary Rekas, 202-720-3415.

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) subsequently confirmed the presence of genetic material not approved for commercialization in Clearfield 131. On March 9, it banned further distribution or planting of 2005, 2006, or 2007 registered or certified CL131 seed.

  • APHIS Legislative and Public Affairs Contacts: Rachel Iadicicco, 301-734-3255; or Jerry Redding, 202-720-4623.

US rice growers have cut their acreage 22 percent from 2005 levels due to the contamination. This brings their production to the lowest level in 10 years. The California Rice Commission board of directors unanimously passed a motion March 14, 2007, calling for a moratorium on field-testing of all genetically engineered rice in their state.

  • CRC Contact: Tim Johnson or Elizabeth Horan, 916-387-2264.

The Mexican government is saying sale and human consumption of the LL601 is now safe and legal, just as the United States said when it "deregulated" the strain in November.

On March 27, APHIS announced it is clarifying the existing approach for handling situations in which regulated genetically engineered plant material becomes mixed at low levels with commercial seeds and grain.

But Greenpeace Mexico has filed an administrative complaint naming officials of the Health Secretariat's Federal Sanitary Risk Protection Commission (Cofepris) for letting the rice onto the Mexican market. The group says the Health Secretariat needs to tell consumers the US brands of contaminated grain and take it off the shelves. The environmentalists say authorities also should reveal the importers, the packers, and the official reasons for a statement that the rice is safe.

  • Greenpeace Mexico Contacts: Cecilia Navarro, (55) 5530-2165 ext. 220, (55) 5172-9869, and Web site.

For many more resources and angles on genetically engineered products, see TipSheets of April 11, 2007; Aug. 30, 2006; Feb. 18 and June 23, 2004; March 6 and Aug. 21, 2002; and July 11, 2001.