By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The same type of genetically engineered wheat recently found growing unauthorized in an Oregon field was used in three livestock feeding trials to evaluate its nutritional qualities.
The Monsanto Co., which developed the glyphosate-resistant "Roundup Ready" wheat, has said the biotech crop was used in two feeding trials in the U.S. and one overseas.
Production and transport of the seed was covered by USDA rules for restricted transgenic material and the wheat used in the overseas trial was ground before shipping, a spokesman for Monsanto said.
The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed that the trials were subject to regulations for regulated biotech crops.
Monsanto did not respond to questions about where the trials were conducted and what animals ingested the biotech wheat.
A study published in 2008 that described one feeding trial said the wheat was fed to pigs at the University of Illinois and the results determined the crop was equivalent to regular wheat in terms of nutrition.
An earlier 2004 study said the biotech wheat was fed to broiler chickens in the Netherlands and also found the crop to be nutritionally equivalent to conventional wheat.
While the feeding trials were subject to the same regulations as field trials of biotech crops, critics have said that those rules are too lenient and allow biotech developers to set up their own protocols for preventing escape with minimal supervision from USDA.
The discovery of restricted Roundup Ready wheat by an Oregon farmer this spring disrupted exports of soft white winter wheat to Japan and South Korea and has raised questions about how the unauthorized release occurred.
The Reuters news agency recently published a report that said the biotech wheat from field trials was shipped to a USDA storage facility in Colorado where it was kept through late 2011.
In the report, officials from the storage facility stated that its handling of the biotech wheat was under investigation by the USDA. However, a spokesman for the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is conducting the investigation, said that the facility isn't under investigation.
"We're not investigating the seed sent to that facility. We know it was incinerated," said Ed Curlett, spokesman for APHIS.
Aside from the unauthorized release of biotech wheat, the agency has two other investigations underway that pertain to its rules for genetically engineered crops, but the details are not public information, the agency said.
Monsanto has said that it has extensively tested wheat varieties commonly grown in the Northwest, but none of the samples were positive for the Roundup Ready trait.
The USDA said it is testing wheat for the transgenic trait with a method provided by Monsanto as part of its investigation, and has made the test available to overseas trading partners.
The agency said it hasn't detected any biotech wheat aside from the "volunteers" found on roughly one acre of a field in northeast Oregon.
The DNA testing method can detect the trait when it's present in one out of 200 kernels of wheat, the USDA said.
The Center for Food Safety, which has criticized USDA's oversight of biotech crops, said the method is insufficiently sensitive, as other DNA testing methods can detect transgenic traits in one kernel out of 10,000.
With a method that only detects the biotech wheat in one out of 200 kernels, there's a stronger possibility that broader contamination has occurred but isn't being detected, said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the non-profit group.
"The sensitivity of the testing is hugely important," he said.