updated 3/22/2005 7:28:49 PM ET 2005-03-23T00:28:49

Swiss biotechnology company Syngenta AG said Tuesday it mistakenly sold to farmers an experimental corn seed genetically engineered to resist bugs that was never approved by U.S. regulators, bolstering critics’ claims that the industry needs tighter government scrutiny.

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Hundreds of tons of the genetically engineered seeds and resulting corn crop were shipped in the United States and overseas between 2001 and 2004. Federal investigators said there was no health or environmental risk because of the seed’s similarity to another Syngenta product already approved for sale and consumption.

“While there are no safety concerns, the regulatory agencies are conducting investigations to determine the circumstances surrounding and extent of any violations of relevant laws and regulations,” said Cynthia Bergman, an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman. “The U.S. government is also communicating with our major trading partners to ensure they understand there are no food safety or environmental concerns that could affect trade.”

The Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration are also investigating, and the company faces a fine of up to $500,000, USDA spokesman Jim Rogers said.

Biotechnology critics say the fact that hundreds of tons of unapproved corn were planted in open fields for four years before Syngenta acknowledged the mistake shows that regulators and the industry can’t now be trusted to keep genetically engineered organisms from contaminating the food supply.

They also complain that current government regulations are particularly lax once a genetically engineered crop has been approved for consumption.

Nearly half the nation’s corn approved for market by the Department of Agriculture is genetically modified, but many consumers want their groceries to be biotechnology-free, and are willing to pay a premium for food they trust to be organic.

Syngenta also acknowledged Tuesday that some of the unapproved corn may have been shipped overseas to countries that allow imports of either the genetically engineered seed or of products made with the genetically modified corn.

Industry issues
The United States and the European Union are in a bitter trade dispute over how strictly to regulate U.S. biotechnology imports. Syngenta spokeswoman Sarah Hull would not say whether EU countries have received the unapproved corn.

“Instead of building international confidence in genetic engineering, the industry continues to shoot itself in the foot,” said Greg Jaffe, biotech director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington D.C. “It proves this technology is hard to control and we have an industry that is not as diligent as we would like.”

The corn in question is spliced with bacteria genes to resist bugs without the need for pesticides. It differs from Syngenta’s approved seeds only in terms of where the foreign genetic material is placed in the plant’s genome, said Jeff Stein, head of Syngenta’s U.S. regulatory affairs.

Syngenta also did not say where in the United States the corn was grown, other than to say it sprouted on a total of 37,000 acres in four states — representing less than 1 percent of all U.S. corn. Still, the mislabeled corn amounted to several hundred tons shipped over the last four years.

In 2000, the inadvertent planting and distributing of genetically engineered corn not approved for human consumption — so-called StarLink — cost the food industry an estimated $1 billion in recalled products.

No recalls for this wrongly shipped corn are planned, Hull said, because the government has declared the corn poses no health or environmental risks. But all unapproved plants and seeds Syngenta still had have been destroyed, she said. She declined to say how much the incident might cost the company.

Hull said the Swiss-based company discovered the mistake in mid-December and reported it immediately as required by law to federal authorities. Syngenta and the USDA said they didn’t publicize the situation because of the ongoing investigation. The science journal Nature first reported the mishap on its Web site Tuesday.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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