More than 430 million bushels of corn in storage nationwide contain some of the genetically engineered variety that prompted a massive recall of corn products last fall, the company that developed it will report today.
The announcement greatly increases estimates of the amount of corn that was inadvertently mixed with the engineered variety, known as StarLink, which is not approved for human consumption.
Genetic engineering has far outrun the science that must be its first governing discipline. Many unknowns attend the insertion of genes across species, from ecological risks to food allergies. These uncertainties beg for investigation, before biotech corporations or their indentured researchers introduce unintended hazards into the natural environment.
Most of the commingled corn was from the 1999 crop and is in grain elevators, according to John Wichtrich, general manager for Aventis CropScience, which developed the corn. The affected corn -- which is more than 4 percent of that year's U.S. corn production -- will have to be rerouted to animal feed and ethanol production.
The 430 million-bushel estimate dwarfs the amount of corn reported earlier from the 2000 crop as containing StarLink -- about 50 million bushels grown by farmers licensed to use it and 20 million bushels from neighboring fields. Wichtrich said 99 percent of the 2000 StarLink corn has been identified and redirected.
The genetically modified protein in StarLink corn, called Cry9C, was approved only for animal consumption because of concerns it might cause allergic reactions in people. But StarLink corn was discovered last fall to be widespread in the nation's corn supply, and more than 300 corn products were recalled after testing positive for StarLink.
The engineered corn apparently was mixed with other corn by farmers inadvertently delivering StarLink to buyers without notifying them, but it also could have occurred by pollen from StarLink fields blowing onto nearby plants.
In a speech scheduled to be made to the North American Millers Association in San Antonio, Wichtrich will offer to set up small labs in mills that produce corn meal, grits and flour to ensure that the processed corn does not contain any of the genetically engineered protein in StarLink. He said that effort had been planned in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration. The Environmental Protection Agency has concluded the protein does not survive the "wet milling" process that makes corn syrup and oil, and Wichtrich said on-site testing of those mills is not required.
In addition, Wichtrich will tell processors of corn that the StarLink problem will not go away soon.
"I know you are wondering: Will there ever be an end to this?" Wichtrich states in a copy of his speech obtained from the company. "Unfortunately, as of right now, the answer is 'No' -- there will never be an 'end' as long as there is a zero tolerance for Cry9C in food."
Corn is considered unfit for human use if one kernel out of 2,400 contains the Cry9C protein.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company