By MITCH LIES
USDA investigators have taken samples from a Washington wheat seed supplier and some of its customers in the ongoing probe into the source of unauthorized genetically modified wheat found in an Oregon field.
Chris Peha, general manager of Northwest Grain Growers in Walla Walla, said USDA investigators have been on his site and taken seed samples of the two varieties planted in the field where a small quantity of Monsanto's Roundup Ready wheat was discovered in April.
But, Peha said investigators would not reveal if they believe his company sold the seed mixture involved in the GMO wheat discovery, or provide any indication of what they were looking for.
"I think they are trying to determine if the GMO wheat was in the seed, but I don't know for sure," Peha said. "They will not answer any of our questions."
Peha said USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service investigators spent two hours on the site and took seed samples of Rod and WestBred528, the varieties planted in the field where the GMO wheat was discovered.
Peha said he didn't know if investigators took samples of other varieties.
Peha also said several of his grower-customers have called to inform him that APHIS contacted them.
Tom Winn, a Helix, Ore., wheat farmer and former administrator of the Oregon Wheat Commission, said he heard from a source June 10 that APHIS inspectors took wheat samples from a Heppner, Ore., field.
Asked if Northwest Grain Growers sold seed to growers as far away as Heppner, Peha said he didn't know.
Industry sources could not confirm whether other seed suppliers in the region have been contacted. Calls to other wheat seed suppliers, Pendleton Grain Growers in Pendleton, Ore., and the McGregor Co. in Colfax, Wash., were not returned.
Tim Bernasek, an attorney representing the grower who discovered the unauthorized GMO wheat, did not return calls seeking confirmation where his client purchased his seed.
APHIS has declined to provide any specific details about its investigation, other than to say it has 15 investigators interviewing farmers and seed distributors and collecting and analyzing evidence.
Growers say they are growing increasingly frustrated with what they say has been a lack of transparency concerning an investigation that could determine the fate of the winter wheat crops just weeks away from harvest.
"You can put me in that camp," Peha said.
Ed Curlett, director of public affairs for USDA APHIS, said he is aware that producers "are eager" for information.
"We are doing as best we can to go as fast as we can, to be as thorough as we can, and we want to be really sure to get this right," Curlett said in a phone message June 11.
"What I can tell you is that the investigation continues," Curlett said.
"We don't have any other information in regard to GM wheat being anywhere else but in this one field so far, and we have more investigation to do and testing to do, as well," Curlett said.
He provided no specific details about the investigation.
The GMO wheat was discovered by an Eastern Oregon farmer in April after he sprayed a fallowed field with glyphosate herbicide.
The herbicide failed to kill some volunteer wheat plants spread throughout the field. The grower estimated the uncontrolled volunteers covered about 1 percent of the 125-acre field.
Tests by OSU and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service determined that the wheat contained the glyphosate-resistant gene that was developed by Monsanto Co. to resist the herbicide Roundup.
Although many GMO wheat varieties have been tested, none have been approved by USDA for commercial planting.