LONDON - The University of Edinburgh last week was fined #3,500 (US$5,724) for failures while working with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Its is the first prosecution taken in the U.K. under legislation covering the safe use of GMOs in a contained environment.

The prosecution of the university - for failure to carry out risk assessments of activities involving genetic modification being carried out in the departments of biochemistry and physiology at the university's medical school - followed a routine inspection in June 1998 by a biotechnology inspector from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the government body responsible for health and safety in the workplace.

The HSE specialist inspector, Gary Burns, said, "The contraventions were similar to others noted at an earlier inspection in 1992, [after] which an improvement notice had been served. Following that notice, corrective action was taken, but the underlying causes were not remedied, leading to this recurrence of the contraventions and ultimately to the HSE's decision [to refer its report to the prosecuting authority]."

A spokeswoman for the university told BioWorld International, "[Although] no harm was done by this incident, it is as unacceptable to the university as to the HSE that there was this technical breach of the regulations, and our procedures have been reinforced to make sure it does not happen again."

Risk assessment underpins the whole basis of regulations in working with GMOs. It provides the framework for classifying activities, determines whether the HSE needs to be notified about the work, and is the basis for ensuring appropriate control measures are used.

The HSE said the risks to staff in this case were low, but added, "The technology underlying this type of work means that this situation can change rapidly, possibly leading to activities involving more-serious risk."

This first prosecution under the Genetically Modified Organisms Regulations, which became law in 1992, shows the HSE flexing its regulatory muscles at a time of growing public concern about GMOs. Bill Holmes, head of HSE's Biological Agents unit, said the prosecution "shows that the technology is being properly regulated. It should also send a message to all those engaged in work involving the use of [GMOs]. The HSE takes its regulatory role very seriously and will not hesitate to ensure the law is complied with fully."

This case, covering GMOs in containment, is to be followed later this month by another concerning the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. Such activities are subject to the Environmental Protection Act of 1990.