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Illegal genetically modified rice was on sale in the UK more than two months after the Food Standards Agency (FSA) claimed it had been withdrawn from the market Friends of the Earth revealed today (Tuesday 20 February). The discovery of the GM rice, which may still be on sale in the UK, was revealed on the first day of a court case, brought by Friends of the Earth, against the FSA over its failure to take adequate steps to protect consumers from GM rice. The incident is the most significant GM food contamination episode to affect the UK.
The legal challenge centres on the FSA's failure to comply with an emergency EU law  which instructed member states to remove unapproved GM rice from the market. The law was put in place after it was revealed, in August last year, that an experimental strain of GM rice (Bayer CropScience's LLRICE601), had contaminated commercial rice supplies in the US and been exported around the world. In the UK, contaminated rice was found in Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Somerfield.
The FSA claims that by November 2006 there was no potentially contaminated US long grain rice on the market in the UK. However, Friends of the Earth has provided evidence that such rice was widely available for sale in London convenience stores in late January 2007. The FSA has confirmed that four of the rice packets purchased by Friends of the Earth from three different London stores were from batches that were contaminated with GM rice.
The FSA usually issues a food alert when food companies withdraw products to alert consumers and local authorities when there are problems with food , however none were issued in this case.
Friends of the Earth's Head of Legal, Phil Michaels said:
"This experimental GM rice has not been licensed for human consumption in Europe. But the Food Standards Agency did not take adequate steps to prevent it being sold in the UK. Early on in this incident, the FSA decided to do nothing about contaminated rice products sitting on our shelves . We believe that the FSA has failed in its obligations to ensure that illegal GM rice was detected and removed from the market because it does not properly understand the approach to GM regulation that is required by European law.
"To justify its lack of action, the FSA relied on a consultant's model to estimate that contaminated rice would have been removed from the market after November. However, the fact that such rice was on sale more than two months after they claimed it had been removed shows their modelling was seriously flawed."
Friends of the Earth's GM Campaigner, Clare Oxborrow said:
"The FSA has failed consumers by attempting to wash its hands of any responsibility over this incident. Instead of acting to make sure the public were not exposed to illegal GM rice, the Agency sat back and waited for contaminated products to be sold and eaten."
"We have resorted to legal action to ensure that if another GM contamination incident happens, the FSA takes robust action to ensure that illegal GM ingredients are kept off our plates. The FSA must also conduct routine tests of food imports from countries growing experimental GM crops to help prevent any more contamination incidents happening in the future."
Specifically the FSA:
Ignored potentially contaminated rice that reached the market since January 2006. Instead it focused on "preventing any further GM-containing stocks entering the UK markets"
Stated that the presence of GM rice in the food chain "is not a health concern" despite the lack of scientific evidence to back this up
Met privately with the food industry and told them there was no need to withdraw any contaminated rice that they found, despite the fact that any presence of unapproved GM ingredients is illegal
Failed to issue food alerts or require enforcement action by local authorities
Food Alerts are usually issued by the Food Standards Agency to notify consumers and local authorities of problems associated with food and what action should be taken. However, the FSA has failed to issue any food alerts over GM rice, despite it being unapproved and therefore illegal in the UK food chain and withdrawals by food companies.