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Lawsuit targets Riceland in modified rice claim
July 3, 2008 - by Chuck Bartels

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - A lawsuit filed Wednesday claims that Riceland Foods Inc. was involved in development of a genetically modified rice strain and delayed for months telling farmers that the rice had gotten into the food supply, news that led a number of nations to stop buying American rice.

Attorney Paul Byrd of Little Rock filed the lawsuit in Lonoke County Circuit Court, potentially on behalf of an estimated 4,000 state rice growers. Arkansas produces the most rice of any state. Byrd said the producers had to sell their rice for less to countries - including the U.S. - that would allow the modified rice on the market.

The strain was not considered harmful to humans, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not approved it for human consumption.

Stuttgart, Ark.-based Riceland announced in August 2006 the Liberty Link modification, known as LLRICE601 and engineered to resist Bayer CropScience AG's "Liberty" herbicide, had entered the Arkansas rice crop. Japan, the European Union and other customers stopped importing Arkansas rice, which drove down the price farmers received.

The lawsuit lists Roger Webb and Harold and Joann West as plaintiffs, plus all others "similarly situated." Byrd said if class status is granted, farmers who have not yet sued will have their claims protected. The case will be before Circuit Judge Phillip Whiteacre, who is handling other rice cases.

Hundreds of farmers across three states have already sued, usually targeting Bayer. Byrd said his state court lawsuit would be separate from those cases.

"Riceland was more involved in genetically modified rice being grown in Arkansas than was known before," Byrd said in a news conference at his Little Rock office. He said Riceland worked with Aventis, since purchased by Bayer, in testing the Liberty Link rice in Arkansas. Those plantings were to have been destroyed, but the strain mixed with other rice growing in the state and contaminated it.

Byrd said Riceland knew in January 2006 that the strain had been detected in a shipment of rice to the European Union but withheld that knowledge until that August.

"It was like a car headed toward a red light hoping it would turn green when you got there," Byrd said. But the Liberty Link variant was never approved for sale. The European Union still won't accept U.S. rice, which Byrd said pulled the price of rice down despite a presently robust commodities market.

A Riceland spokesman didn't immediately return a call for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Riceland is a farmer-owned cooperative, but Byrd said lawsuit is a valid action.

"It goes to show the degree of the breach of trust that has occurred. (Riceland) was created for the aid and benefit of farmers."

The lawsuit does not give a dollar amount sought from Riceland. Byrd said expert testimony would reveal how much farmers were prevented from making and that a jury would determine any punitive damages.

"It's got to be enough to make a major company deter" from withholding similar information in the future, he said.

Rice planting was up slightly in 2008 from last year. Farmers planted 1.35 million acres this year, compared to 1.33 million acres in 2007.

A federal judge in Missouri is to decide whether to consolidate several lawsuits against Bayer into one class-action suit that would include thousands of rice farmers throughout the United States.

The USDA determined the Liberty Link rice likely escaped from a corporate-funded test plot at Louisiana State University, where it was being grown alongside commercial varieties.