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Japan finds StarLink Corn in US cargo -U.S. exporters

By Randy Fabi WASHINGTON, Dec 27 (Reuters) -

Japan has found trace amounts of unapproved StarLink corn in an American shipment bound for Tokyo's food supply, renewing fears that major trading partners may once again turn their backs on U.S. crops, U.S. exporters said on Friday. The return of StarLink corn comes as the United States tries to convince reluctant trading partners like the European Union and southern Africa that genetically modified crops are safe for consumers.

Made by Aventis CropScience, the biotech corn variety slipped into the U.S. food supply in September 2000 sparking a nationwide recall of more than 300 kinds of corn-based foods. U.S. regulators had only approved StarLink for animal feed due to concerns that it might cause allergic reactions in humans. Aventis CropScience was later sold to Bayer AG (BAYG.DE) as part of the fallout from the Starlink recalls.

Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries late Thursday detected StarLink corn in a U.S. corn shipment in a vessel, The North King, docked at Nagoya harbor, three U.S. exporters told Reuters. "We can confirm that in fact some food corn was detected as StarLink," one U.S. exporter, who wished not to be identified, told Reuters. "They randomly test inbound corn for StarLink both food and feed corn." Another U.S. exporter said the discovery would "create a problem for everyone." "Everyone's gotten a little lazy. The Japanese government hasn't been testing that often," the U.S. exporter said. "Now they'll be testing every boat again for the next month."

A Japanese embassy official in Washington said he could not yet confirm that StarLink corn was found, but was checking with Tokyo.

USDA "UNAWARE" OF MATTER, INVESTIGATING

A U.S. Agriculture Department official said the agency was unaware of Japan's findings on StarLink corn, but was looking into the matter. "There hasn't been any communication with USDA from the Japanese government," said a USDA spokesman, who wished not to be identified. "All of our vessels are tested for StarLink." USDA officials said they were surprised by the news since they believed all remaining StarLink corn was destroyed last year.

U.S. exporters said The North King was chartered by Japanese trading house Mitsui. A Mitsui spokesman in New York could not confirm or deny it was their vessel. The company official said to call its Tokyo office for any comment. The United States is the world's largest producer of crops that are genetically modified to make them resistant to pests, or to withstand herbicides used to kill nearby weeds. Exporters said the Starlink issue was still vexing, since it takes only a few kernels of corn to spoil an entire cargo. Before the first Starlink recall, corn and other grains were normally "blended" to obtain overall higher grades for food or feed use.

After Starlink roiled the grain trade, the USDA's Federal Grain Inspection Service put in place specific procedures to "identity preserve" (IP) and segregate grains. "Shippers are supposed to follow the FGIS protocol," said one corn trader. A POTENTIAL GLOBAL IMPACT The return of StarLink corn could renew widespread international backlash against U.S. grain exports as it did when it was first discovered in the United States two years ago. U.S. corn purchases from top buyer Japan have only started to return to normal this year, while South Korean food processors have continued to shun U.S. corn for food use. South Korea's KOCOPIA food processor, once a top customer for U.S. corn, bought 107,500 metric tons of Chinese and South American corn on Friday.

It now routinely demands official "non-StarLink" certification and samples for its tenders. Many environmental and consumer groups, especially in Europe, have opposed biotech crops saying more research was needed to ensure they are safe for humans and the environment. The European Union has banned imports of new biotech goods for the last four years due to consumer suspicions. The Bush administration is considering lodging a compliant before the World Trade Organization, saying the restrictions were baseless.

Europe's fears helped prompt Zambia in not accepting biotech corn, or maize, because there was insufficient evidence of its safety. It is one of six southern African countries facing famine. Fears of a fresh backlash against all U.S. corn weighed on U.S. grain markets on Friday, traders said. Corn for March delivery at the Chicago Board of Trade closed 3 cents lower at $2.39-3/4 cents a bushel. Bids for loaded corn barges at New Orleans, the main U.S. export channel for corn, also were weaker as grain traders awaited more details, merchants said. 12/27/02 14:57 ET

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