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StarLink Still Making Surprise Appearances

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2001; Page A01

Corn seed about to be sold to farmers for this year's crop has been found
to contain small amounts of a genetically engineered variety of the grain
that prompted massive recalls of food and crops last year, government and
industry sources said yesterday.

Seed companies detected the presence of the engineered corn, known as
StarLink, while testing their stocks to make sure the seed was free of the
biotech variety, which has been approved only for animal consumption
because of concerns about its safety for humans.

There is no immediate public health threat because none of the seed has
been planted. But if the problem is found to be widespread, farmers and
grain exporters fear it could be devastating because major buyers of
American corn in Europe and Asia have said they will refuse to buy any
corn suspected of containing StarLink. The United States earns billion of
dollars in corn exports every year.

In response, alarmed representatives of the seed industry and other corn
and food industry officials are scheduled to meet today with officials
from the three federal agencies that oversee agricultural biotechnology.

"There may be low levels of [the StarLink protein] in some non-StarLink
hybrid corn seed," an Agriculture Department official confirmed yesterday.
Those attending today's meeting will "look into the issue and further
evaluate what steps may be necessary to address it."

The worried reaction to the discovery illustrates how controversial and
sensitive the issue of genetically engineered crops has become. Although
most scientific organizations have concluded the crops are safe, there is
widespread public concern in Europe and Japan that genetically modified
crops could cause unforeseen environmental and human health problems, and
there is some evidence that concerns are growing in the United States as
well.

StarLink contains a gene spliced in to produce a form of a protein
naturally made by a bacterium called Bacillus thuringienis, or Bt. The
protein kills the destructive European corn borer. Other genetically
engineered crops on the market contain forms of the Bt protein, but those
have been approved for human and animal use, avoiding the problem that
StarLink caused.

Industry sources said yesterday that it was unclear how the seed corn came
to contain the StarLink protein, called Cry9c. Federal regulators have
required farmers growing genetically modified crops to plant buffer crops
of non-modified plants because of concerns that pollen would drift onto
nearby fields and cross-breed with conventional crops.

The creator of StarLink, Aventis CropScience, maintains the corn is safe
for human consumption and has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to
approve it retroactively for human use to avert future disruptions of the
corn supply. But the agency is under intense pressure from critics of
biotechnology to keep the ban on human use. The EPA has declined to
approve StarLink for humans because Cry9c breaks down more slowly than
similar biotech products, raising fears that it could cause dangerous
allergic reactions.

Industry sources said the level of Cry9c being found in corn seed is very
low. But because the protein is not allowed in food at all, any found in
this year's corn would be considered a contaminant.

Ships filled with American corn were turned back from Japan last year
after officials found StarLink in the shipments.

The Agriculture Department recently reported that corn exports have
declined this year, and analysts have pointed to StarLink as the reason.

Last year Aventis officials initiated a massive and expensive buyback of
StarLink corn, and corn found to contain StarLink, after they discovered
that it had been inadvertently mixed with corn destined for human
consumption. A company official said yesterday that 94 million bushels of
corn have been purchased under the program and that 99 percent of the 1999
and 2000 corn has been identified and contained.

In all, the official said, more than 28,000 truckloads, 15,000 rail cars
and 285 barges of corn tested positive for StarLink.

It was unclear yesterday how many seed companies have found Cry9c in their
products.

Representatives of the American Seed Trade Association, who are expected
to be at the meeting today, declined to comment yesterday.

The discovery of StarLink in food ranging from taco shells to beer last
year underscored how difficult it is to segregate genetically modified
crops from conventional ones. The presence of the StarLink protein in corn
seed suggests segregation may be impossible.

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