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Ten Percent of US Corn Contaminated by StarLink

Tests for genetic corn spur concerns

Amounts of disputed variety found in 10% of US grain inspections
By Anthony Shadid, Boston Globe Staff, 5/3/2001

WASHINGTON - StarLink, the genetically engineered corn whose traces
prompted the recall of hundreds of snack products last year, has turned up
in nearly one-tenth of 110,000 grain tests performed by federal inspectors
around the country since November, the US Department of Agriculture says.

Often the amount is low - just a handful of kernels - but the finding has
surprised specialists. They worry that the prevalence of StarLink, which was
approved only for animal use out of concern it can cause allergic reactions
in humans, is far greater than the fraction of crop land on which it was
planted.

The tests are forcing grain companies to channel large volumes of corn away
from the US food supply and export markets to livestock feed. ''There's more
StarLink out there than anyone expected,'' said Anne Bridges, a manager at
Medallion Laboratories, a food-testing lab in Minneapolis.

The disclosure is the latest in a series of reports that have left the nation's
agricultural industry grasping for a solution to a problem that could persist
for years. Aventis SA, the French pharmaceutical company that invented
the variety, has acknowledged StarLink will remain in the food supply ''for
the foreseeable future'' and has asked the US government to permit its
presence at low levels that it deems harmless.

The government, meanwhile, has offered to buy back corn seed contaminated
with StarLink at a cost of $15 million to $20 million. So far, more than
one-quarter of seed companies eligible have enrolled, although they produce
less than 1 percent of US corn seed. Already, the seed's presence has forced
companies to divert millions of bushels.

Since Nov. 15, the USDA's Grain Inspection Service has tested more than
110,000 samples of corn. Of those, about 9 percent have tested positive for
Cry9C, a unique protein that identifies the corn as StarLink, said John C.
Giler, chief of the service's policies and procedures branch.

The tests were carried out by dozens of inspectors across the country in
barges, storage bins, trucks or anywhere else corn was stored or shipped,
Giler said. In the Midwest, where StarLink was more intensively cultivated,
up to 16 percent of samples tested positive, he said. Overall, he said, the
share of positive tests has remained steady.

Testing, which takes about 15 minutes, could go on indefinitely, Giler said.
Inspectors leave it to the grain company to divert that portion of the crop
that has traces of StarLink.

''We'll sample, we'll test, we'll certify the test results and then it's up
to the grain company to decide what to do with the corn,'' Giler said.

StarLink is engineered to produce a protein toxic to insect larvae. The
Environmental Protection Agency approved it under a split registration,
allowing it for livestock and industrial use, but not human consumption,
which accounts for less than one-tenth of the nation's 10 billion bushel
corn harvest. The agency has now acknowledged that was a mistake
and said it will no longer grant split registrations to biotech seeds.

Last fall, StarLink was taken off the market. But removing it from the
food supply has proven to be a far greater challenge for regulators, farmers,
food companies and the Aventis unit responsible for the seed, Aventis
CropScience. The USDA tests can detect one kernel in a sample of 800,
and any contamination means the corn must be diverted from the food supply.

''You're looking for the single kernel here or there,'' Giler said. ''This
is really something new, something new to the market, trying to segregate
out after the fact. In most cases, you know it's coming so you can plan for
it.''

StarLink was planted on just 0.4 percent of US corn acres. But it tainted
much greater acreage by mixing with other varieties through handling (up to
a bushel of corn can remain in a combine after harvest) or by
cross-pollinating with other varieties after being carried by insects, birds
and wind.

Aventis CropScience has said it has contained 99 percent of StarLink grown
in 2000, requiring 1.7 million tests and forcing the rerouting of more than
8,000 trucks, 15,000 rail cars and 285 barges. Even then, company officials
say they won't completely remove it from the corn supply any time soon.

Now Aventis has asked the EPA to tolerate StarLink at 20 parts per billion,
the equivalent of about one kernel in every 800. Critics call the request a
ploy to shield the company from liability.

StarLink's threat remains under dispute. The company's new research filed
with the EPA shows that the corn poses no health concern. The EPA has said
it will ''carefully evaluate the research.''

Dozens of people have reported getting sick from taco shells and other
products containing the corn, and the EPA is awaiting an investigation of
those complaints. In December, a panel of independent scientists told the
EPA that StarLink shows a ''medium likelihood'' of causing an allergic
reaction in some humans. But, it said, given the low levels likely present
in US food, StarLink probably would not cause allergic reactions.

Still, the fresh positive tests from the USDA unsettled some.

''The number keeps going up and up, and the concerns continue to grow,''
said Matt Rand, campaign manager for biotech at the National Environmental
Trust, a lobbying group that opposes bioengineered foods. ''With an increase
in contamination, we're running into the situation where we cannot control
genetically engineered crops.''

Even biotech supporters expressed surprise at the number of positive tests,
citing the findings as further incentive for the government to abandon zero
tolerance for StarLink. To them, the issue is more of a regulatory than
health concern.

''That strikes me as high,'' said James Bair, vice president of the North
American Millers Association, which represents companies in 37 states.

Bair said it would be difficult to eliminate all traces of StarLink from the
food supply in the short term. ''Zero is a really low number,'' he said.
''We try as hard as we can. It's been very expensive, it's a huge burden,
it's slowed down commerce.''

Anthony Shadid can be reached by e-mail at ashadid@globe.com.

This story ran on page 1 of the Boston Globe on 5/3/2001.

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