U.S. officials seeing test for modified wheat grain

The U.S. government is working with private companies to develop a rapid test for genetically modified wheat in response to fears about an unapproved wheat strain, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Tuesday.

Buyers in Asia and Europe have shunned U.S. wheat since the Agriculture Department  announced last week that a strain of wheat, modified by Monsanto Co. for herbicide tolerance, was found in an Oregon field. Genetically modified wheat is not approved for cultivation anywhere in the world.

Vilsack said development of a reliable, low-cost test for modified wheat was an Agriculture Department priority. Asked how soon a test would be available, Vilsack said, “Obviously, as soon as we can do it.”

Current tests are expensive and time consuming, and the new test is intended to be quick and easy.

Vilsack’s remarks, on the sidelines of an event focused on cutting down food waste, were his first public comments on the subject since the wheat find was announced May 29.

Agriculture officials have said daily there are no signs genetically modified wheat was in commercial channels. Vilsack said development of a rapid test would allow grain exporters and processors to assure customers that their products are safe to eat.

With that assurance, he said, “The markets will be re-opened.”

Japan, South Korea and the European Union have said they plan to test incoming wheat shipments for modified wheat. Preliminary tests by Korea on U.S. wheat and flour were negative, officials said on Monday. Final results are expected today.

U.S. agriculture officials  were communicating with trading partners and customers about the investigation, said Vilsack.

Two approaches are available for a wheat test, said Vilsack. One test, used on corn and soybeans, examines protein in crop. The other method is a DNA test.

The department’s other priority is to find the source of the wheat that sprouted in the northeast Oregon field. The unwanted volunteer seedlings survived when sprayed with the weed killer glyphosate, which led to tests that identified the wheat as a Monsanto strain.

Other fields on the farm tested negative for the wheat, said an Agriculture Department spokesman.

Some $9 billion in U.S. wheat exports hang in the balance. The United States, the world’s largest farm exporter, exports nearly half of its wheat crop.

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