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The federal government unwittingly allowed the sale of genetically modified canola seeds in 1997 that were "seriously contaminated," according to government documents that have only now come to light.

The virtually unpublicized incident involving canola seeds produced by Monsanto Canada Inc., one of the main proponents of genetically modified food, raises questions about Ottawa's ability to tightly regulate food safety in a biotechnological age.

The documents say the seeds were not harmful, and they were eventually recalled, the first and only such action involving genetically modified foods.

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Access-to-information documents show that some of the seeds, marketed on the Prairies in 1997, were planted by two farmers before the recall and that some were processed into edible oil.

"This incident has sent shock waves through the domestic biotech-plant-breeding organizations/industry as well as internationally," the Canadian Food Inspection Agency declared in one of the documents.

They were obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin for The Globe and Mail.

Yesterday, government officials stressed that the seeds posed no danger to the health of Canadians or to the environment. But the documents suggest widespread confusion at the time.

The incident began in March, 1997, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency approved two new strains of canola that were genetically modified by Monsanto to resist its weed-killer, Roundup.

But something went wrong. Limagrain Canada Seeds Inc., which handled, produced and distributed the Monsanto product, sold seeds that were not the same ones approved by the CFIA. The products hit the market just before seeding season, and Canadian farmers quickly bought 60,000 bags -- enough to fill 70 tractor trailers or plant 600,000 acres.

"Our office has been advised that seed of LG3315 has possibly been seriously contaminated with genetic material from the parental line, GT200 [which was not approved]" said a letter from CFIA to Limagrain on April 15, 1997.

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The error was not discovered until April, after some farmers planted the seed. It turned out that seeds that were approved by the government had subsequently been cross-bred with seeds that were not fully approved by the CFIA. The result was an untested product with unknown characteristics.

The documents, which include letters, reports and communiqués related to the incident, do not explain how the seeds were mixed together.

Monsanto -- not the government regulators -- discovered the mistake.

"Monsanto has now completed their investigation and found that the varietal purity problem was not a result of genetic engineering," CFIA documents say. The mistakes were twofold, Monsanto told the government. In the first place, seeds that were not approved by the CFIA should have been destroyed; and the companies should not have allowed the seeds to get mixed up and bred together.

"While the loss of these acres is disappointing, it is business as usual and a very manageable situation," Monsanto said in a statement at the time.

Ottawa and Monsanto agreed that a recall should begin immediately, and the companies and government devised ways to destroy the seeds. But deadlines were missed repeatedly, and the companies found it difficult to track down every last seed and dispose of it, the documents show.

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Two farmers had already planted their canola, and the companies had to broker deals with them to have their crops plowed under. One farmer resisted for months, the documents show.

Some of the seeds used in testing in 1996 were crushed and turned into edible oil and feed for animals. CFIA officials are not certain if these seeds were contaminated. Health Canada tested the contaminated canola in 1997 to see if it would be dangerous, but found no "significant" health risks.

When the seeds were finally recovered or the crops destroyed in the summer of 1997, the companies and the federal government could not agree on how to dispose of them.

Limagrain wanted to turn the seeds into industrial oil and fertilizer. But much of the seed was heavily treated with fungicides that were considered hazardous waste. Government authorities told the company it had to bury everything in a landfill.

By November, 1997, the companies and government officials agreed that the contaminated seeds had been adequately withdrawn and destroyed. The government documents show, however, that there was a discrepancy between the amount of seed bought by farmers and the amount actually disposed. In some cases, the documents show more seed bought than destroyed, but other data show fewer seeds were bought than destroyed.

The discrepancy amounts to thousands of kilograms of seed, but a Limagrain report blames the difference on packaging and inaccurate scales.

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In a separate document, Montsanto fingered Limagrain for the fact that the seed got out at all.

Many grain farms and the growing biotechnology industry have embraced genetically modified crops as more efficient, but consumers are increasingly wary about their health and environmental effects and inadequate government testing.

The massive recall, and the only one so far in Canada for genetically modified crops, prompted immediate changes in government requirements and company practices, to bolster credibility in an anxious international grain market.

The government and the companies believe that the fact that Monsanto detected the error and officials were able to withdraw the contaminated seeds proves that the system works, the documents say.

However, environmentalists said the incident proves that government regulators are too reliant on company data and self-regulation.

SEEDS OF CONTENTION

The life of the contaminated canola seed: April 14, 1997 - Monsanto Canada tells the federal government that it has detected something wrong in canola seed LG3315, a seed genetically modified to be resistant to Monsanto's herbicide, Roundup. April 16 - The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspends registration of LG3315. Monsanto and seed company Limagrain being recall of 20,000 bags of seed. April 25 - Registration is suspended for a second genetically modified canola seed, LG3295. Companies begin recalling 40,000 more bags of seed. Deadline for withdrawal is set for May 15. End of May - Seed withdrawal ends after companies plow under a farmer's field and collect 60,000 bags of seed. July - Companies ask to revise disposal plan to allow more time. July 23 - Documents show companies were unable to persuade one farmer to allow his contaminated crop to be plowed under. August - Canadian Food Inspection Agency allows companies more time for and approves revised disposal plan. September - Government and companies argue about how best to dispose of seed. Government prevails. October, November - Seed is buried in secret landfill sites in Western Canada. Nov. 7 - Limagrain says it has cleaned up its LG3295 seed and asks for registration to be reinstated. Jan. 14, 1998 - Government reinstates registration of LG3295, saying it is now safe. May, 1999 - Companies request de-registration of LG3295 because they have created new seeds with better yield.

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