WASHINGTON - New concerns have arisen about the
safety of the US food supply and about the effectiveness of
current efforts to maintain a separation between genetically
engineered and conventional products.
This follows revelations last week that StarLink, a genetically
modified variety of yellow corn engineered by Aventis CropScience,
had been found in white corn products after consumers complained
of allergic reactions.
''The US government's inability to contain StarLink shows how other undesirable biotech crops could get loose in the world food supply.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved
StarLink for human consumption because of its potential to trigger
allergy symptoms. Although it is supposed to be fed only to
animals, the modified corn was detected in yellow corn foodstuffs
late last year, when people reported adverse reactions.
Some manufacturers and retailers of the foodstuffs - including
tortilla chips and taco shells - switched to white corn, reasoning
that this way they could be sure there was no Starlink, which is
yellow, in their products. But in February, the FDA found genetic
material from StarLink in Kash 'n' Karry brand white corn tortilla
chips in Florida.
''The US government's inability to contain StarLink shows how
other undesirable biotech crops could get loose in the world food
supply,'' says Larry Bohlen, director of Friends of the Earth's
health and environment program.
Since most European countries, including Britain, France and
Italy, prohibit the sale of foods containing biotech ingredients
unless they are clearly labeled, the StarLink contamination has
provoked concerns that bio-engineered grains could get into
The controversy over biologically engineered corn and the
continuing discovery of StarLink corn in products sold abroad has
already prompted one country, Sri Lanka, to ban any use of the
biotech corn, says Bohlen.
The World Health Organization and United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization are expected to soon approve
international safety guidelines for genetically modified foods. If
approved, the standards would require a tightening of US safety
assessment procedures if genetically modified crops from the
United States are to have access to agricultural markets abroad.
The FDA does not require that all genetically modified foods be
subjected to safety assessments before they are launched on the
market, as they are in the European Union.
The FDA only found the genetic traces of the StarLink corn after
it received a complaint by Keith Finger, a doctor living in
Florida. Last year, Finger had reported suffering an allergic
reaction to yellow corn products tainted with StarLink. In
February, he reported a milder reaction after eating white corn
The FDA's discovery of StarLink in a white corn product is
significant, says Bohlen, because it comes despite manufacturers'
switch to white corn, which makes up less than three percent of
the US corn market. It also raises serious new questions about the
spread of the genetically engineered crop, adds Bohlen, because
the gene could have found its way into white corn through cross-
Federal regulators are now investigating the facility that
produced the white corn chips to determine how the snack food was
contaminated. Both the Kash 'n' Karry and Food Lion grocery chains
that sold the products, voluntarily pulled the product from their
shelves this week.
Finger was one of dozens of people who reported that they had
suffered an allergic reactions to yellow corn products tainted
with StarLink last year.
Last month, the US government released a report that concluded
that 17 people - including Finger - who complained of possible
allergy attacks did not have any antibodies in their blood linked
to StarLink's key component.
Environmentalists, however, say the report is flawed and
inconclusive. They argue that the latest news proves that more
comprehensive tests are needed.
StarLink is genetically altered to contain the plant pesticide
Bacillus thuringienis, or Bt, which kills the dreaded European
corn borer. Aventis has applied for an exemption to the
government's restriction of StarLink.
While the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that
StarLink may cause allergies in humans, a special advisory panel
of the administration will meet July 17-18 to discuss whether
enough scientific evidence exists to safely allow small amounts of
StarLink in human foods.
Bohlen, whose research last year alerted the FDA to the spread of
StarLink into human food products, says the new reports of
contaminated white corn should prompt the EPA to revise its
estimates of people exposed to StarLink.
''Because allergies develop over time, this increase in exposure
increases the likelihood that people will develop allergies to
StarLink,'' he says.
Unable to guarantee the complete separation of StarLink from other
corn varieties, US corn growers also want regulators to allow a
certain amount of StarLink corn in food products.
An absolute zero percent presence of StarLink corn in foods eaten
by humans is not realistic, says David Uchic, a spokesperson for
the National Corn Growers Association, because contamination could
occur through cross-pollination and during storage.
Copyright 2001 IPS