WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - The European Union has found genetically modified flaxseed in 11 Canadian flax shipments in less than one month, dimming prospects for farmers selling this year’s crop.
The EU’s rapid-alert database for food and feed added two alerts from France on Friday reporting Canadian flaxseed shipments contaminated with GMO flax, bringing the total to 11.
The shipments are all under quarantine.
European consumers are reluctant to eat genetically modified food for fear of unknown longer-term health effects, although the EU accepts some GMO crops, like canola seed.
The EU does not accept any GMO flax.
Canada is the world’s top producer and exporter of flax, a blue-flowering plant also called linseed that produces oil for linoleum flooring and seed for baked goods and animal feed.
Flax is one of Canada’s smaller crops, with production forecast at 915,000 tons this year, but three-quarters of the crop typically sells for export.
“I doubt producers will be doing anything with their crop in the short term,” said Barry Hall, president of the Flax Council of Canada.
Exporters can still sell Canadian flax into Europe provided they guarantee the shipment contains no GMO material, but the contamination has in practical terms closed the market, Hall said.
The cash price of flaxseed has fallen sharply, from grain companies making no offers at all to well below the normal price of C$10-C$11 per bushel, Hall said. The U.S. market remains open to Canadian flax.
The EU database is an online system that provides European authorities information about serious food and feed risks.
The flax-contamination reports include seven from Germany, two from France and one each from Sweden and the United Kingdom.
They state that buyers distributed the contaminated product to 24 more countries -- Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Romania in the European Union -- as well as Croatia, Iceland, South Korea, Norway, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Mauritius and Switzerland outside the EU.
“We just have no idea how widespread this contamination is at this point,” said Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Ottawa-based activist group Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. “But obviously, it’s potentially huge.”
One of the reports of contamination cites both Canada and the United States as the source of flaxseed.
More than two dozen companies buy Canadian flax, including Cargill, Viterra, James Richardson International and Paterson Grain.
European laboratories have said the GMO material is FP967, a variety known as Triffid that is the only GMO flax ever produced. A Canadian university researcher developed it in the 1990s and officials in Canada and the U.S. authorized it for use in feed and food in the late 1990s.
The Flax Council of Canada, concerned about GMO plantings upsetting markets, later lobbied successfully for the Canadian government to deregister Triffid in 2001 and acquired most of the certified seed, which it destroyed or crushed domestically.
The Canadian Grain Commission, a government agency that certifies the quality of grain, is testing flax samples from all Canadian grain-handlers and expanding its survey of this year’s crop to trace the origin of the GMO material.
Editing by Christian Wiessner