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Widespread Contamination of our food Supply - Massive recall is now underway
New Concerns Rise on Keeping Track of Modified Corn

October 14, 2000
By KURT EICHENWALD

Efforts to trace shipments of a bioengineered corn unapproved for
human consumption have raised concern among food and grain industry
officials that the corn which has already been discovered in two
brands of grocery products may have made its way more widely into
production channels for the nation's food supply.

Millions of bushels of the unapproved corn, known as StarLink,
have been delivered to more than 350 grain elevators around the
country. Government and industry officials, uncertain how much of
the corn has been properly segregated and identified, are now
pushing the operators to test their supplies for evidence of
contamination.

There is no evidence that the corn causes health problems in
humans, but the discoveries have led to nationwide recalls of two
brands of store-bought taco shells, a move that was extended
yesterday to a larger group of brands and products.

Food companies, many of which are now testing every shipment of
corn for signs of the unapproved grain, have reacted with dismay to
growing evidence of contamination, saying that it demonstrates a
breakdown in the procedures intended to keep products grown from
genetically modified seeds separate from conventional grains.

"This whole system has been self- policing by the seed industry,"
one food company executive said, speaking on condition of
anonymity. "And obviously it hasn't worked."

The concern about StarLink has strained relations between the
nation's grain companies and the developer of the corn, Aventis
Crop Science, a subsidiary of Aventis S.A. of France. For example,
according to a communication to the organization's members, the
National Grain and Feed Association has demanded that the company
reveal the names of the more than 2,000 farmers growing StarLink
crops, information that would allow the industry to track
potentially contaminated shipments more quickly.

But those requests have been refused. The grain association has
since filed a request with the Environmental Protection Agency
under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking the names of those
farmers.

The StarLink corn is engineered to produce a protein toxic to a
common pest, the corn borer. It was cleared for animal feed or
industrial products in 1998, but the E.P.A. withheld approval for
use in food meant for human consumption because tests showed
properties indicating that it might cause allergies.

On Sept. 29, shortly after the first detection of contaminated
taco shells, Aventis CropScience said it had reached an agreement
with three federal agencies to work together to buy up all of this
year's StarLink crop and to ensure that it had not entered the food
supply.

Since then, the company has contacted the farmers, urging them to
store the corn until further notice and questioning them about how
the product had been handled.

What was found, according to industry officials who have been
briefed on the results, is that not all farmers had signed required
contracts obligating them to follow certain procedures intended to
keep StarLink out of the food supply. As a result, the company is
now urging elevator operators to begin testing corn shipments for
the presence of the modified grain.

"This is a very sensitive matter, and everyone's role in
preventing StarLink corn from entering unapproved channels is
critical," John Wichtrich, vice president and general manager of
Aventis CropScience, wrote to elevator operators. In the letter,
Mr. Wichtrich urged the elevator operators "to take those measures
you believe necessary to insure that the corn you purchase is
suitable for the use you intend."

Mr. Wichtrich did not respond to a telephone message seeking
comment.

Among the measures the company recommends is that elevator
operators ask corn growers about each delivery to determine if it
contains StarLink, or if it was grown less than 660 feet from a
crop of the bioengineered corn. Corn fields grown in that proximity
risk contamination by the bioengineered crop. While Aventis
informed farmers that "buffer zones" of that size were necessary
between StarLink and other corn crops, some farmers have been found
not to have strictly adhered to the instruction.

"The food industry is very concerned that StarLink has
contaminated a larger portion of the grain supply," one government
official involved in the matter said.

Two grain industry officials said that based on the information
they had received, as much as 100,000 acres of corn may have been
grown within the buffer zones, in addition to the 315,000 acres for
which StarLink seed was sold.

In the scramble to keep StarLink out of the food supply, a cottage
industry has emerged in the last two weeks for testing kits to
determine evidence of Cry9C protein, which is present in the
bioengineered corn. The kits, which are used to test corn grain but
not processed food, are manufactured by Strategic Diagnostics of
Newark, Del.

The most common kit, known as a strip test, is used by food and
grain companies at the point of delivery, providing information
within minutes whether a corn shipment has been contaminated with
StarLink. An individual strip test is designed to detect the
StarLink protein in concentrations greater than 0.25 percent,
although the sensitivity of the test can be improved by repeating
the test or by increasing the number of kernels of corn sampled
from 125 to as many as 400.

At a meeting on Tuesday with officials from the Department of
Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and
Drug Administration, the company spelled out details of its
contacts with 2,070 farmers who have grown the StarLink crops.

In the presentation, according to industry executives who have
been briefed on the results, Aventis CropScience said that it had
determined that 10.7 million bushels of StarLink had been fed to
livestock, while 47 million bushels remained on the farm or
unharvested. Slightly less than nine million bushels has been
delivered into commercial channels.

Altogether, the StarLink grain represents roughly one-half of 1
percent of this year's corn harvest, which totaled more than 10
billion bushels.

In registered letters to growers of StarLink, the company has
urged them to keep the bioengineered corn stored on the farm until
they receive further instructions about where it should be
delivered. The farmers will be paid a premium over the market price
for the corn in exchange for keeping it stored.

The StarLink corn was first found last month in store-bought taco
shells distributed under the Taco Bell brand by Kraft Foods, which
issued a nationwide recall. On Wednesday, a similar finding was
made in house-brand taco shells sold by the Safeway supermarket
chain. The two products were made of yellow corn from the same
mill, run by Azteca Milling in Plainview, Tex.

Yesterday, Mission Foods, which produced the Safeway shells,
announced a recall of all its tortilla products made with yellow
corn on the chance that some might contain StarLink corn. The
company, a subsidiary of the Gruma Group of Mexico, which is based
in Irving, Tex., sells products under the Mission name as well as
numerous private- label brands.

Mission declined to name which other major grocery chains carried
its private-label products, citing confidentiality agreements.

"This is a voluntary recall but we have strongly recommended it to
them," said Peter Pitts, a spokesman for Mission. "We did this
after conversations with our customers and the F.D.A. It's prudent.
The most important thing is confidence in the safety of the food
chain."

The company said it stopped buying corn on Sept. 23 from the
Plainview mill. Now it plans to take the additional step of making
all of its products from white corn "until there is clarification
from the government on the safety of the yellow corn supply."

Azteca Milling, also a Gruma subsidiary based in Irving, announced
its own voluntary recall of all yellow corn flour yesterday. Dan
Lynn, the company's president, said it would mill only white corn
because that was the "surest way to bolster confidence" that no
corn unapproved for human consumption had entered the food chain.

All efforts to keep StarLink out of the food supply entail costs,
whether for testing kits, storage or diversion of corn purchased
for food into channels for feed. And already, in preparation for
potential litigation, grain operators and food companies are
reviewing the original registration for StarLink that the E.P.A.
granted Aventis. That registration was effectively revoked earlier
this week, grain and food companies are hoping but it can be used
to force Aventis to pick up the ultimate cost of the current
effort.

For example, one term in the registration states that Aventis "is
liable for the actions of its customers in regard to meeting the
terms and limitations of this registration."

In a communication this week with grain processors and elevator
operators, the grain and feed association cited that statement.
"Thus," the association wrote, "companies may wish to carefully
document for future action instances in which StarLink corn was
unknowingly delivered to a facility."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times

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