By MITCH LIES
USDA investigators have taken samples from more than one seed dealer as part of a probe to discover the source of unauthorized genetically modified wheat discovered in a northeast Oregon field.
Ed Curlett, public affairs director for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, confirmed June 13 that multiple dealers had been visited after the Capital Press reported that the service had taken samples from Northwest Grain Growers in Walla Walla, Wash., as part of the investigation.
Curlett confirmed that samples had been taken at the company, but would not say if investigators believe seed from Northwest Grain Growers was planted on the field where the genetically modified wheat was discovered.
Curlett said that APHIS investigators also have collected seed from other seed companies in the region. He declined to reveal which companies, or specify how many had been visited.
"We are being very careful in regards to what information is released around the wheat investigation," Curlett said. "We do not want to jeopardize the investigation in any way."
Calls to two seed companies, Pendleton Grain Growers in Pendleton, Ore., and The McGregor Co. in Colfax, Wash., were not returned.
Chris Peha, general manager of Northwest Grain Growers, said investigators would not reveal to him if they believe his company sold the seed involved in the biotech 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 APHIS investigators took seed samples of Rod and WestBred528, the varieties planted in the field where the genetically modified, or 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 they have been contacted by APHIS.
Helix, Ore., wheat farmer Tom Winn, a former administrator of the Oregon Wheat Commission, said June 10 that he heard investigators have taken tissue samples of wheat plants from a Heppner, Ore., farm.
Curlett would not confirm if that was the case. He said he didn't know if investigators had taken tissue samples from any wheat farms in the region.
The biotech wheat was discovered by an Eastern Oregon farmer in April after he sprayed a glyphosate herbicide in a field he was preparing to fallow.
The herbicide failed to kill some volunteer wheat plants in the field. The grower estimated the uncontrolled volunteers covered about 1 percent of the 125-acre field. The uncontrolled plants were not concentrated in any one area, according to Tim Bernasek, a lawyer representing the grower.
Tests by Oregon State University and APHIS determined that the wheat contained the glyphosate-resistant gene that was developed by Monsanto Co. to resist the herbicide Roundup.
Although many biotech wheat varieties have been tested, none have been approved by USDA for commercial planting.