Corn seed about to be sold to farmers for this year's crop has been found to contain small amounts of a genetically engineered variety of the grain that prompted massive recalls of food and crops last year, government and industry sources said yesterday.
Seed companies detected the presence of the engineered corn, known as StarLink, while testing their stocks to make sure the seed was free of the biotech variety, which has been approved only for animal consumption because of concerns about its safety for humans.
There is no immediate public health threat because none of the seed has been planted. But if the problem is found to be widespread, farmers and grain exporters fear it could be devastating because major buyers of American corn in Europe and Asia have said they will refuse to buy any corn suspected of containing StarLink. The United States earns billion of dollars in corn exports every year.
In response, alarmed representatives of the seed industry and other corn and food industry officials are scheduled to meet today with officials from the three federal agencies that oversee agricultural biotechnology.
"There may be low levels of [the StarLink protein] in some non-StarLink hybrid corn seed," an Agriculture Department official confirmed yesterday. Those attending today's meeting will "look into the issue and further evaluate what steps may be necessary to address it."
The worried reaction to the discovery illustrates how controversial and sensitive the issue of genetically engineered crops has become. Although most scientific organizations have concluded the crops are safe, there is widespread public concern in Europe and Japan that genetically modified crops could cause unforeseen environmental and human health problems, and there is some evidence that concerns are growing in the United States as well.
StarLink contains a gene spliced in to produce a form of a protein naturally made by a bacterium called Bacillus thuringienis, or Bt. The protein kills the destructive European corn borer. Other genetically engineered crops on the market contain forms of the Bt protein, but those have been approved for human and animal use, avoiding the problem that StarLink caused.
Industry sources said yesterday that it was unclear how the seed corn came to contain the StarLink protein, called Cry9c. Federal regulators have required farmers growing genetically modified crops to plant buffer crops of non-modified plants because of concerns that pollen would drift onto nearby fields and cross-breed with conventional crops.
The creator of StarLink, Aventis CropScience, maintains the corn is safe for human consumption and has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to approve it retroactively for human use to avert future disruptions of the corn supply. But the agency is under intense pressure from critics of biotechnology to keep the ban on human use. The EPA has declined to approve StarLink for humans because Cry9c breaks down more slowly than similar biotech products, raising fears that it could cause dangerous allergic reactions.
Industry sources said the level of Cry9c being found in corn seed is very low. But because the protein is not allowed in food at all, any found in this year's corn would be considered a contaminant.
Ships filled with American corn were turned back from Japan last year after officials found StarLink in the shipments.
The Agriculture Department recently reported that corn exports have declined this year, and analysts have pointed to StarLink as the reason.
Last year Aventis officials initiated a massive and expensive buyback of StarLink corn, and corn found to contain StarLink, after they discovered that it had been inadvertently mixed with corn destined for human consumption. A company official said yesterday that 94 million bushels of corn have been purchased under the program and that 99 percent of the 1999 and 2000 corn has been identified and contained.
In all, the official said, more than 28,000 truckloads, 15,000 rail cars and 285 barges of corn tested positive for StarLink.
It was unclear yesterday how many seed companies have found Cry9c in their products.
Representatives of the American Seed Trade Association, who are expected to be at the meeting today, declined to comment yesterday.
The discovery of StarLink in food ranging from taco shells to beer last year underscored how difficult it is to segregate genetically modified crops from conventional ones. The presence of the StarLink protein in corn seed suggests segregation may be impossible.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company