Scotts to pay $500,000 fine over biotech bentgrass

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scotts Miracle-Gro Co will pay a $500,000 fine over allegations it failed to comply with U.S. rules while testing a genetically engineered grass variety that could one day be used on lawns and athletic fields, the Agriculture Department said on Monday.

The settlement involves field tests in Oregon and 20 other states of creeping bentgrass modified to resist weed killers such as Monsanto Co’s Roundup. A golf course, for example, could be sprayed to kill weeds without hurting the grass. Genetically engineered grasses have not been approved by USDA.

The civil penalty is the largest allowed by the Plant Protection Act of 2000, according to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

An APHIS spokeswoman said the allegations included failure by Scotts to follow proper equipment-cleaning procedures and to have all required buffer zones around the genetically engineered crop to prevent mixing with traditional crops.

Jim King, a Scotts spokesman, said the company takes responsibility for the mistakes and has implemented steps to prevent them from happening again.

“This is an issue that we view as largely behind us,” said King. “The outcome that (USDA) announced today was not inconsistent with what we would have expected to see from them. We will pay the fine and move on.”

APHIS also alleged Scotts failed to prevent bentgrass or its offspring from persisting in the environment following a field trial in Oregon in 2003.

The government instructed Scotts in 2004 to locate and remove any accidentally released bentgrass to address past allegations that the company failed to notify APHIS of the problem. Since then, there have been more findings of the genetically engineered crop in the environment.

As part of the agreement, Scotts will conduct three public workshops for other potential developers of genetically engineered plants and other interested parties within one year that focus on the best ways to grow biotech crops and how to quickly resolve biotechnology compliance incidents.

“USDA takes compliance with its biotechnology regulations very seriously,” said Bruce Knight, under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs. “Compliance is, and will always be, our highest priority and we will continue our rigorous oversight of regulated genetically engineered plants.”

A U.S. district judge ruled in February that the Agriculture Department must conduct a more thorough review of applications for field trials of genetically engineered crops to determine if they pose a threat to the environment.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy said APHIS failed to adequately consider whether field tests for genetically engineered bentgrass from Scotts could harm the environment.

The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Food Safety and other groups in 2003, alleged APHIS violated environmental regulations when it approved field tests without determining whether genetically modified bentgrass was a plant pest and could breed with native plants.

Editing by David Gregorio and Braden Reddall