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Kraft executive wants tougher rules on planting crops for drugs

Sandra Guy
Chicago Sun - Times, Apr 4, 2003
http://www.suntimes.com/output/business/cst-fin-biopharm04.html

Kraft Co-CEO Betsy Holden is calling for stricter rules for planting
crops that are bio-engineered to produce pharmaceuticals. The usually
tight-lipped and regulation-averse Holden told an agricultural forum
that such crops, as well as genetically modified animals, pose a threat
to the food supply.

"Both share the same issue--the risk of co-mingling with the food
supply, the same problem that led to the recall a couple of years ago of
our Taco Bell products that were adulterated with StarLink corn," Holden
said in a speech to the Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va., sponsored by
the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kraft Foods voluntarily recalled its Taco Bell Home Originals taco
shells from grocery stores nationwide in September 2000 after its tests
confirmed the presence of StarLink corn, which is genetically
engineered. The corn had been approved by the Environmental Protection
Agency for use in animal feed, but not for human consumption because it
can trigger allergic reactions.

Asked to expand on Holden's comments, Kraft spokesman Michael Mudd said
if the federal government refuses to outlaw pharmaceutical crops or to
ban their planting in farm states, Northfield-based Kraft "wants there
to be every regulation possible so commingling will not happen."

A reporter for Congress Daily, a Capitol Hill news service, asked Holden
after her speech whether a tolerance level should be allowed for
pharmaceuticals in crops. Holden declined to answer, but she said a
trace amount of an allergen "could be extremely deadly," according to
the Congress Daily report.

Holden also pointed to "close calls" in which the Agriculture Department
found traces of biopharmaceutical corn in a crop of Nebraska soybeans
and in a new corn crop in Iowa. Farmers had planted the soybeans on top
of the plowed-under corn.

ProdiGene Inc., a privately held biotech company based in College
Station, Texas, agreed to pay about $3 million in fines and costs after
the Nebraska mixup.

"Right now, public acceptance of biotechnology in America is relatively
high," Holden said. "But how many more times can we test the public's
trust before we begin to lose it?" she asked.

The issue is gaining urgency because about 20 companies are splicing
corn, rice, soybeans, tobacco and other crops to try to mass-produce
medicines. Nationwide, 38 percent of the 79 million acres of corn
planted this year will be biotech, including corn genetically engineered
to resist insects and weedkiller, according to the Associated Press.

Regulators have yet to approve products made from pharmaceutical crops
for commercial use, but the companies developing them want to go to
market in a few years.

Holden isn't alone in her complaints. Groups as varied as the Grocery
Manufacturers of America and environmental groups opposed to genetically
modified organisms in food have called for federal regulators to crack
down on biopharmaceutical farming.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization last fall endorsed a ban on
pharmaceutical crops in the Midwest and Plains states, but reversed
itself after farm-state lawmakers protested. Farmers see the new
technology as a potentially lucrative business because the crops would
sell for premium prices.

The Agriculture Department in March proposed new, stricter rules
governing pharmaceutical plants.

Pharmaceutical corn crops would have to be planted at least one mile
away from plants grown for human and livestock food, for example.
Current regulations call for a half-mile separation.

The proposed rules also call for land used to grow biopharm corn crops
to lie fallow for a year and for separate equipment to be used in
planting genetically engineered and conventional crops.

Mudd, the Kraft spokesman, said the company endorses the proposed rules
and wants farmers to guard their fields to ensure no one steals the
bio-engineered crops.

Opponents say such rules are unworkable and fail to take into account
today's sophisticated farming methods.

Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and former director
of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Biotechnology, said
Thursday that the proposed "one size fits all" rules are unnecessary.
The likelihood that people would be injured by biopharm and conventional
crop mixups is highly unlikely, Miller said.

The regulations would stigmatize bio-engineered crops, inflate the costs
of developing them and result in far fewer new drugs for consumers [in
their corn flakes?], he said.

 
 
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