By MARY CLARE JALONICK 05/29/13 06:39 PM ET EDT
WASHINGTON — Unapproved genetically engineered wheat has been discovered in an Oregon field, a potential threat to trade with countries that have concerns about genetically modified foods.
The Agriculture Department said that the genetically engineered wheat is safe to eat and there is no evidence that modified wheat entered the marketplace. But the department is investigating how it ended up in the field, whether there was any criminal wrongdoing and whether its growth is widespread.
"We are taking this very seriously," said Michael Firko of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
A farmer discovered the genetically modified plants on his farm and contacted Oregon State University, which notified USDA early this month, Firko said.
No genetically engineered wheat has been 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 discovery could have far-reaching implications for the U.S. wheat industry if the growth of the engineered product turns out to be far-flung. Many countries around the world will not accept imports of genetically modified foods, and the United States exports about half of its wheat crop.
Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba said in a statement that the discovery is "a very serious development that could have major trade ramifications." The state exports about 90 percent of its wheat.
"I am concerned that a highly regulated plant material such as genetically modified wheat somehow was able to escape into a crop field," Coba said. MORE