The USDA is continuing its investigation of GE wheat found this week on an Oregon farm with a team of nine researchers, says Michael Firko, acting deputy administrator for APHIS' Biotechnology and Regulatory Services.
The agency made the initial announcement regarding the find Wednesday, also noting that it contained Monsanto's patented glyphosate-resistant Roundup Ready trait. No GE wheat is commercially available in the U.S. or in any country at this time.
Monsanto was approved to study the trait in wheat starting in 1998, though it abandoned the project in 2004. In all, APHIS authorized more than 100 field tests in 16 states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.
Oregon field trials were last conducted in 2001, USDA said. Testing of the wheat plants in question first began when an Oregon farmer sent samples of a wheat plant he believed to be glyphosate-resistant to an Oregon State University scientist on April 30. Based on the scientist's results, she referred the samples to APHIS on May 3, kicking the investigation into high gear.
Firko noted that the investigation was not made public until Wednesday due to the agency's extensive testing and re-testing.
"There are no tests that ask the wheat plant, 'what's in there?' You have to design a very specific test with very specific chemical reagents," Firko explained. Part of designing and completing those tests include ruling out or implicating a number of possibilities in addition to getting affirmative results that certain genes are in the plant.
Though the USDA said it has no information to indicate that GE wheat is present in commerce, if some is found, it will initiate an inquiry to identify circumstances surrounding the release, evaluate the risk and determine next steps.
However, due to previous voluntary tests by the Food and Drug Administration affirming the safety of GM glyphosate-resistant wheat, USDA said the GE wheat does not constitute a food safety issue. Therefore, if the low level presence of GE wheat appears in commerce, it will not take remedial steps to remove it.
There is currently little information to determine how widespread the GE plants are, but USDA said it understands the concerns wheat growers face.
"As both a leading producer and consumer of wheat, the United States is directly aware of the concerns that an event like this could raise in the food/feed supply chain, from seed producers and farmers to retailers and consumers," USDA explained. "We are working hard to reassure domestic and global wheat consumers that this development, although unwelcome, does not pose a risk to food safety."
Japan Thursday cancelled an order of white wheat, while the EU has pledged to test incoming shipments for GMOs, Reuters reported.
Right now, Firko said the investigators are "looking at the company that supplied the grain to the grower," but few answers have come to light.