Researchers this week admitted they mistakenly shipped a small number of genetically engineered tomato seeds they thought were naturally grown. Officials at the University of California-Davis said the seeds were sent to other scientists for research purposes only. They also said there was no evidence the seeds ended up in the food chain.
Consumers seem to be demanding separate tracks for genetically modified and natural foods. But the misrepresented tomato seeds are symbolic of the struggle to keep GMO and natural foods apart.
And academic institutions aren't the only ones dealing with the problem. As producer Nancy Crowfoot found, Midwest grain handlers are on the front lines in the battle to preserve product identity.
This grain elevator along the Mississippi river in southeast Iowa, is hurrying to get its supply of corn and soybeans from farmers, loaded onto barges and shipped downstream before the river traffic typically shuts down in mid-December.It is an annual deadline that hasn't changed in the nearly 50 years this elevator has been here. But what has changed is some of the grain the elevator buys. With all the new corn and soybean varieties bred or genetically modified, the Colusa elevator now buys up to a dozen different products ... many for specific end users. And much of it looks identical.
Nick Huston, Colusa Elevator Company, Wever, Iowa: "That's one of our biggest fears around here, now."
To elevator operator Nick Huston, the probability of a mix-up that contaminates an identity preserved grain & is scary.
Nick Huston, Colusa Elevator Company, Wever, Iowa: "For instance, on a bushel of high oil corn. We may have already paid thirty cents worth of premium on that and then if we contaminate it, we have to sell it out as regular corn so we lost the thirty cents. So it could be very costly."
Cost ... and wanting to be a part of the higher earnings that come with identity preserved varieties ... are the reason Huston decided he needed to better track the crops coming and going through his elevator. To improve the operation, he chose to go through a third-party certification process. Because so much of his grain goes to the export market, he chose an internationally recognized program called ISO9000. At a cost of about $15,000 he and eight full-time employees went through months of training. They learned the decades old elevator needed no physical changes. The change came in management, where Huston had to create a protocol for incoming grain sampling, testing and storage. He also established a checklist used for every barge loaded.
Nick Huston, Colusa Elevator Company, Wever, Iowa: "During the loading we test it about five times. When it's done we check the composite and if it meets the purity that they want then we actually put seals on the doors of the barges so we can tell if anybody's opened it and tampered with the cargo."
Samples of each shipment are also stored in buckets for six months, in case any questions arise about the quality of the shipment.
These precautions and a written "checklist" may seem like a common sense thing to do ... but it helped, Huston said, to make it mandatory standard operating procedure.
It is a mode of operation an Iowa State University professor is trying to impress upon other grain elevators in the Midwest. Charles Hurburgh is in charge of the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative. The Initiative has a program for both farmers and elevators to encourage responsible growing and delivery of identity preserved crops. On the grain handling side, it is advocating and helping Iowa elevators gain certification.
Charles Hurburgh, Iowa State University, Iowa Grain Quality Initiative, Ames, Iowa: "The main point that has come of this is that if the United States wants to maintain a strong position ,we have to emphasize customer service and differentiation as opposed to one size fits all. That's our marketing opportunity and all of these things, certification systems among them, are part of developing the capability to capture that."
Hurburgh says certification may be the way of the future for any elevator wanting to handle identity preserved grains. And the need will become more important as crops start being grown for uses such as pharmaceuticals.
Charles Hurburgh, Iowa State University, Iowa Grain Quality Initiative, Ames, Iowa: "What you're really getting at is the whole class of products that, at least I like to refer to it as non-food and non-feed grains, things that probably will never be approved to appear in the food or feed chain. And under those scenarios, under that scenario, a pretty much iron clad certification and trace ability system will be required. You just won't produce it without it."
At the Colusa elevator, Nick Huston says he has his operation in the order he deems necessary to handle pharmaceutical crops, should they eventually be grown in the Midwest. But even if that market does not materialize here, he is certain the ISO9000 certification will help him capture other identity preserved opportunities in the future.
Nick Huston, Colusa Elevator Company, Wever, Iowa: "Well, literally we were trying to move ourselves forward, if you will, in the line of people that want to be preferred suppliers. And so we could be a more desirable alternative, if you will, for the end users, if we can document our quality procedures. We've been there now for four years and we can see real value in it."
For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.