Prodigene not to start paying fine until 2004

WASHINGTON-What looked at first like a tough government crackdown on a sloppy biotechnology company now looks more like a sweetheart deal, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In December, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) fined Prodigene $250,000 and ordered it to reimburse the government approximately $3 million to destroy soybeans meant for the food supply that were contaminated with genetically engineered corn designed to produce veterinary drugs. But according to documents obtained by CSPI, Prodigene doesn't have to make the first payment to the government until 2004, and won't have to pay any interest as it spreads out quarterly payments over two years.

"If USDA wags its finger in public but plays footsie in private, these penalties won't deter biotech companies at all from violating the conditions of their permits," said CSPI biotechnology project director Gregory Jaffe. "This kind of pattycake payment schedule means taxpayers not only have to front the money for Prodigene's carelessness, but will actually end up picking up some of the tab."

USDA did not disclose the payment schedule when it announced the settlement agreement it struck with Prodigene in December, even though it was agreed to on the same day. "By not disclosing that document, USDA created the illusion that Prodigene's penalty was more severe than it actually is."