Published on Wednesday, November 22, 2000 in the Washington Post
Biotech Corn Protein Found in 2nd Variety
by Marc Kaufman
The genetically engineered protein that caused massive recalls of taco shells and other corn products has been found in a second variety of corn, raising questions about how it got there and how much additional corn may have been contaminated.
The company that created the biotech corn, Aventis CropScience, said yesterday that the gene that was spliced into its StarLink corn--Cry9C--had been found in another corn hybrid produced by the company licensed to produce StarLink.
The seed company that produced and distributed StarLink corn under license from Aventis, Garst Seed Co. of Slater, Iowa, said yesterday that it was notifying farmers who bought the possibly contaminated corn.
"We don't know how many lots might be effected, but we don't currently think it is substantial," company spokesman Jeff Lacina said.
Aventis notified federal agencies about the discovery yesterday, and Department of Agriculture officials will meet with Garst and Aventis officials on Monday. "We are aware of the situation, but at this point don't know what happened and how," a USDA official said.
The StarLink variety of corn has already raised damaging questions about how crops produced through biotechnology are grown and distributed. Starlink, which is engineered with a gene to protect crops from pests, was approved for use in animal feed. But because it might cause dangerous allergic reactions in some people, it was never approved for human use. Although officials said the risk to the public is low, dozens of products found to contain the corn were recalled as a precaution, costing millions of dollars.
Finding the Cry9C protein in another variety of corn raises new questions about how carefully the biotechnology industry is producing and distributing biotech products.
It also raises the possibility that the spread of the gene from StarLink to another hybrid was caused by "gene flow"--the process by which genetic material from one plant is naturally transmitted to others in the field.
The discovery comes at a sensitive time in the StarLink saga, because the Environmental Protection Agency has said it will decide soon whether to retroactively approve the corn for human use.
Aventis requested the new review last month, after presenting what it said was new information showing that the Cry9C protein did not cause food allergies. But many critics have attacked the new information as unconvincing.
Because Aventis is so eager to have the EPA declare StarLink fit for human consumption, some federal officials said yesterday that the new information about Cry9C being found in other corn may be an attempt to bolster the argument that it is safe for human consumption.
"This is a company with an absolutely horrible track record regarding StarLink, and now they are pointing fingers at another corn hybrid with the same gene," said an administration scientist familiar with the situation. Aventis faces enormous legal liability because of the StarLink recalls.
"This definitely has to be investigated, but some suspicion is also in order as to why we are learning this right now," the scientist said.
In a statement, the company said the unapproved gene was found in a Garst hybrid produced in 1998, but Lacina said that corn seeds are sometimes held for several years before being planted.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company