WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Department said Wednesday that a non-approved strain of genetically engineered wheat has been discovered in an Oregon field, a potential threat to trade with other countries that have concerns about genetically modified foods.
Dr. Michael Firko of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said a farmer discovered the genetically modified plants on his farm and contacted Oregon State University, which notified USDA early this month.
There is no genetically engineered wheat currently approved for U.S. farming. USDA officials said the wheat is the same strain as a genetically modified wheat that was legally tested by seed giant Monsanto a decade ago but never approved. Monsanto stopped testing that product in Oregon and several other states in 2005.
The USDA said the genetically engineered wheat is safe to eat, but the department is investigating how it ended up in the field, whether there was any criminal wrongdoing and whether its growth is widespread.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture said the field is in Eastern Oregon. USDA officials declined to speculate whether the modified seeds blew into the field from a testing site or if they were somehow planted or taken there, and they would not identify the farmer or the farm's location.
The discovery could have far-reaching implications for the U.S. wheat industry if the growth of the engineered product turns out to be widespread. Many countries around the world will not accept imports of genetically modified foods, and organic foods sold in the United States cannot be engineered by law.
Organic companies have expressed frequent concern that genetically modified seed will blow into their farms and contaminate their products.
USDA said this is the only report it has received of a genetically engineered wheat.
"Even so, we are taking this very seriously," Firko said.