updated 10/10/2003 11:00:08 AM ET 2003-10-10T15:00:08

The government has determined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign failed to comply with safety laws when it allowed offspring of animals used in a genetic experiment to be sold as food.

THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION discovered in February that 386 pigs born from pigs used in a study might have entered the food supply. The pigs in the experiment had genes from different species, but the university said the offspring didn’t. The there was no health risk.

In two similar letters sent last week to university officials, FDA stressed that it has never allowed genetically engineered animals into the food supply. “Nevertheless, you released at least 386 pigs from (testing) for sale for slaughter as human food,” FDA wrote.

The university has 15 days to respond. FDA officials warned that if a response isn’t received, the agency could take further action, such as imposing fines.

Melanie J. Loots, the university’s associate vice chancellor for research, said the school is working to ensure a similar incident doesn’t happen.

“We immediately stopped selling pigs, stopped rendering pigs and began to incinerate anything that came out of that study,” she said. Since February, “we have not sold pigs,” Loots added.

Consumer groups say the incident revealed gaps in government oversight. They are calling for penalties.

“Granted, they didn’t put human health at risk, but FDA needs to send a strong message to the regulated community that if you release these animals into the food supply — whether or not they cause any serious health risk — you’ve got to pay some fine or face a penalty for it,” said Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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