Published on Thursday, October 26, 2000 in the Washington Post
Firm Seeks Temporary Approval for Biotech Corn
by Marc Kaufman
|The company that makes genetically engineered corn, which is causing widespread problems in the nation's corn supply, yesterday asked the federal government to temporarily approve the grain for human consumption.
Aventis CropScience of Research Triangle Park, N.C., asked the Environmental Protection Agency to allow its StarLink corn in human food products, saying new evidence strengthens its case that the grain is safe.
New tests and a risk assessment concluded that consumer exposure to foods containing the corn is, even under worst-case scenarios, "many thousands of times smaller than that required to sensitize individuals and lead to a later allergic reaction," the company said in a statement.
EPA officials said that they understood the "urgency" of the company's request and would review the information, but that no quick decision should be expected. "We will look at the new information provided by industry and will follow a rigorous process of scientific and public review," said W. Michael McCabe, deputy administrator of the agency.
The corn, which is engineered with a protein designed to control pests, was approved only for animal consumption because of concerns it may trigger dangerous allergic reactions in people. But the corn apparently was inadvertently mixed with conventional corn around the country. That has triggered costly recalls of taco shells and widening concerns that remaining corn supplies may be difficult to sell.
Aventis also presented yesterday what it called new and reassuring information about the speed at which the protein breaks down in the human stomach. Previous research had suggested the protein broke down slowly, making it more likely to trigger allergic reactions.
The Aventis request comes as concern is growing that StarLink corn has illegally made it not only into the American food supply but also into products sold abroad.
Yesterday in Japan, the Consumers Union organization said it had detected the genetically engineered corn in snack foods and animal feed. Its presence there would compound the messy StarLink situation because genetically engineered corn is not allowed to be exported, just as it is not allowed in human food.
"We will ask the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to take appropriate measures," an official with the Japanese Health Ministry said in a statement.
The corn also was found in another taco product yesterday-- --Western Family brand taco shells--that may be distributed in Japan and elsewhere around the Pacific Rim, a U.S. consumer group announced. Genetically Engineered Food Alert said it had found the corn in taco shells in Eugene, Ore.
Western Family Foods officials in Tigard, Ore., said yesterday that the tacos, produced by Mission Foods, had been recalled from its 3,500 stores earlier this month. But officials did not know whether the store-brand tacos had been sold abroad.
A coalition critical of biotechnology sent a letter to President Clinton on Tuesday urging him to make sure the EPA does not give StarLink clearance for human consumption.
"The industry must not now be rewarded for violating the law by an after-the-fact approval of a potentially dangerous product," the letter said. Other critics said the Aventis request was motivated more by a desire to avoid legal liability than by concern about consumer health.
Aventis has returned its EPA license to sell more StarLink, so approval for human use would only be temporary, to cover corn already in the food supply.
In the meantime, the company and the Department of Agriculture are trying to buy back the entire StarLink crop from growers and to identify and retrieve the 9 million bushels that may be entering the human food supply.
Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture with the Biotechnology Information Organization, said the corn does not pose a health hazard. The announcement that another taco brand might be contaminated is "an unfortunate attempt to foment and flame the fans of hysteria over food safety in the absence of any supporting data," he said.