Published on Thursday, October 19, 2000 in the Washington Post
Biotech Corn May Be in Various Foods
by Marc Kaufman
Millions of bushels of genetically engineered corn approved only for animal use have made their way into the human food supply chain, officials said yesterday, raising the possibility that the corn will be found in a wide array of foods.

As a result, industry and federal officials are working to find the corn and buy it back before it's made into more taco shells and chips, corn flakes and other corn products.

"A lot has gone downstream," said John Wichtrich, vice president and general manager of Aventis FoodSciences of Research Triangle Park, N.C., the developer of the corn. "We're working with the grain elevators, the flour mills and processors to identify the commingled corn, and we're getting it out of the food chain."

Biotech Corn
A Mexican Greenpeace activist in a suit and mask picks a packet of toasted tortillas made with transgenic corn flour off a shelf at a supermarket in Mexico City October 11, 2000. Greenpeace activists entered the supermarket in suits and labelled corn flour products which tests have shown to contain genetically modified corn, to protest that the products do not say so in their labelling. REUTERS/Andrew Winning
Although the corn was not approved for humans because of fears it might trigger allergic reactions, officials do not think its presence in food poses an imminent health risk. But the incident raises serious questions about whether genetically engineered products can be kept segregated from conventional ones in the nation's food system.

Investigators thought the corn had made its way into a limited number of food products through a single Texas corn flour miller that had inadvertently used the corn from last year's crop to make taco shells. That prompted the recall of all taco shells made from that miller's flour, including Taco Bell grocery store and Safeway brand taco shells.

Those recalls triggered a series of investigations by federal regulators and Aventis to determine how the corn had gotten to the Texas miller. While the federal investigations are continuing, Aventis now says the corn from this year's crop apparently was sold by farmers to dozens--and perhaps hundreds--of grain elevators across the country, which unknowingly distributed it to millers and processors for use in making food.

About 260 grain elevators have received the corn this year, Aventis officials said yesterday. Based on completed surveys of 107 of those grain elevators, the company said that about half were forwarding the corn on for unapproved human uses.

Wichtrich estimated that about 88 percent of the Aventis corn, called StarLink, was either being stored on farms or used for animal feed. But an additional 9 million bushels had already left farms this year, and that is the missing corn company officials are tracking down and buying back when they can.

An official with the Department of Agriculture, which is monitoring the Aventis effort, said yesterday that there is "a plausibility" that some of this year's StarLink corn has made it into food products. But he also said that "there is an enormous effort underway to pull back as much of the corn as possible."

The Food and Drug Administration is testing a variety of corn products for the presence of the unapproved corn.

StarLink corn is the only genetically modified variety that was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for animal use, but not for humans. Aventis officials now echo the opinion of others in the food and biotech industries that the decision to accept only the animal approval was a serious mistake.

Aventis agreed to buy the entire crop at a 25-cent premium this month, and is selling much of it to feedlots and ethanol producers. The company is also paying to test commingled corn in many grain elevators, and will buy any corn in storage that has even a small amount of StarLink in it. Analysts estimate the cost will approach $100 million.

Wichtrich said yesterday that in conversations with growers of StarLink corn, the company learned that some did not know that the corn was approved only for animal or industrial use, and that some knew the restrictions but forgot them.

"A lot of this corn was grown on a small section of larger farms, and sometimes farmers just harvested it all together," he said. "Sometimes they didn't advise the grain elevators of the restrictions, and sometimes they were too busy to remember. It just didn't work out."

Wichtrich said that Aventis has identified about 352,000 acres planted with StarLink--a yellow corn mostly grown in the Midwest and upper Midwest--and an additional 168,000 acres of buffer crops planted to protect against pollen spread from the biotech corn. None of that corn was supposed to enter the human food supply. He also said some farmers did not know that StarLink had been planted near their crops, which were within the official buffer zones.

© 2000 The Washington Post