Tainted Rice Leaves a Painful Legacy

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Aug. 31, 2009 12:00 am  

Ray Vester, who has been farming east of Stuttgart for more than 40 years, is one of the farmers whose fortunes were affected by the discovery of genetically altered rice in U.S. crops in 2006.

Class Action Denied
A ruling last year in a Missouri District Court has helped fill the courthouse with cases. Judge Catherine Perry denied a motion by plaintiffs' attorneys to consolidate the hundreds of plaintiffs' suits into a class action. She wrote in her August 2008 order that the plaintiffs' claims varied too much to fit as a class action.

As the possible deadline for a claim to be filed neared this month, rice producers flooded U.S. District Courts.

In Arkansas, one single lawsuit has about 1,500 plaintiffs, which may be a record for a case not certified as a class action, according to one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Paul Byrd of Little Rock. It is unclear how long these cases will take to get through the court system.

'Zero Tolerance'
The USA Rice Federation is trying to persuade the EU to buy the U.S. rice, even if it contains trace amounts of the genetically altered rice, said Bob Cummings, senior vice president of the USA Rice Federation.

For the 2008 rice crop, 99.99 percent of the long-grain tested showed it was not genetically altered, he said.

"What we're saying to the EU is here's a test that's as sensitive as we can predict," Cummings said. "So it's time for you to remove your mandatory testing requirement ... because we've made a very good and very successful effort to get rid of the trait."

But some rice producers aren't holding their breath and don't think the EU will lift its mandatory testing anytime soon. "The EU has zero tolerance," Yielding said.

It's unclear how much the disappearance of the EU market has cost rice farmers. The market was less than 10 percent of the U.S. rice export market in 2005.  

"There's no way to put a dollar value on what it would be because every year is different," said Chuck Wilson, the Arkansas field director for the USA Rice Federation. "You don't know what they would buy in a given year anyway, with or without that situation."

Still, the USA Rice Federation can't persuade most of the countries in the EU to buy U.S. long-grain rice without further testing, Cummings said.
It's too risky for a rice producer to sell to the EU because even if the rice passes tests in the United States, it will be retested in the EU countries, except for the United Kingdom, Cummings said.

"If a positive result turns up, the importer and exporter are left in a very difficult situation because the rice can't enter the EU," he said.

The brown rice export market to the EU had been 142,475 metric tons in 2005. By 2007, it was at 16,816 metric tons. However, exports rose to 21,827 metric tons in 2008.



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