Environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth has taken the first step in mounting a legal challenge to the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) for its failure to take appropriate action to prevent illegal GM rice from being sold to the public, following the discovery of GM-contaminated rice in own-label packs sold by UK supermarket chain Morrisons.

The environmental group said that it has sent a formal legal letter to the FSA before action, which is the first step in bringing a judicial review. The FSA has until Friday 29 September to respond.

Friends of the Earth sent a number of rice samples for testing after it was revealed last month that US long grain rice supplies had been contaminated with the GM rice LLRICE 601, grown in experimental trials by Bayer CropScience.

After the US contamination was revealed, the EU introduced measures to prevent GM-contaminated rice from entering the EU. But Friends of the Earth alleges that the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has acted unlawfully in its failure to act adequately on this issue.

“The Food Standards Agency’s response to this GM contamination incident is scandalous and, we believe, unlawful,” said Friends of the Earth’s Head of Legal Phil Michaels. “It has failed to act adequately to prevent illegal GM rice reaching our plates and has failed to provide accurate advice and information as it is required to do by law. Instead it has concentrated on playing down the seriousness of the issue and minimising the effect on business. We have now resorted to legal action to force the FSA to do its job properly and to ensure that adequate steps are taken to protect UK consumers from illegal GM-contaminated food.”

Friends of the Earth says a leaked memo reveals that the FSA privately told food retailers and manufacturers that it does not expect them to test for contamination, or to remove any contaminated rice from their shelves. The FSA is only planning to test some rice at mills for contamination, meaning that any contaminated rice that is already in shops or warehouses may not be detected and may be sold to unsuspecting consumers, Friends of the Earth said.

However, the FSA maintains that it has acted properly. “The level of GM contamination is believed to be extremely low,” an FSA spokesperson told just-food. “Because safety assessments suggest that there is no risk to human health, we told the industry that we do not currently require mandatory testing or the removal of products.”

The FSA also believes its stance is consistent with that taken by the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA). EFSA announced on Friday (15 September) that it did not believe that the GM-contaminated rice would pose a significant threat to public health.

“Based on the available data, EFSA’s GMO Panel considers that the consumption of imported long grain rice containing trace levels of LLRICE601 is not likely to pose an imminent safety concern to humans or animals,” EFSA said on Friday.