By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday , October 19, 2000 ; Page A01
Millions of bushels of genetically engineered corn approved only for animal
use have made their way into the human food supply chain, officials said
yesterday, raising the possibility that the corn will be found in a wide
array of foods.
As a result, industry and federal officials are working to find the corn and
buy it back before it's made into more taco shells and chips, corn flakes
and other corn products.
"A lot has gone downstream," said John Wichtrich, vice president and general
manager of Aventis Food Sciences of Research Triangle Park, N.C., the
developer of the corn. "We're working with the grain elevators, the flour
mills and processors to identify the commingled corn, and we're getting it
out of the food chain."
Although the corn was not approved for humans because of fears it might
trigger allergic reactions, officials do not think its presence in food
poses an imminent health risk. But the incident raises serious questions
about whether genetically engineered products can be kept segregated from
conventional ones in the nation's food system.
Investigators thought the corn had made its way into a limited number of
food products through a single Texas corn flour miller that had
inadvertently used the corn from last year's crop to make taco shells. That
prompted the recall of all taco shells made from that miller's flour,
including Taco Bell grocery store and Safeway brand taco shells.
Those recalls triggered a series of investigations by federal regulators and
Aventis to determine how the corn had gotten to the Texas miller. While the
federal investigations are continuing, Aventis now says the corn from this
year's crop apparently was sold by farmers to dozens--and perhaps
hundreds--of grain elevators across the country, which unknowingly
distributed it to millers and processors for use in making food.
About 260 grain elevators have received the corn this year, Aventis
officials said yesterday. Based on completed surveys of 107 of those grain
elevators, the company said that about half were forwarding the corn on for
unapproved human uses.
Wichtrich estimated that about 88 percent of the Aventis corn, called
StarLink, was either being stored on farms or used for animal feed. But an
additional 9 million bushels had already left farms this year, and that is
the missing corn company officials are tracking down and buying back when
An official with the Department of Agriculture, which is monitoring the
Aventis effort, said yesterday that there is "a plausibility" that some of
this year's StarLink corn has made it into food products. But he also said
that "there is an enormous effort underway to pull back as much of the corn
The Food and Drug Administration is testing a variety of corn products for
the presence of the unapproved corn.
StarLink corn is the only genetically modified variety that was approved by
the Environmental Protection Agency for animal use, but not for humans.
Aventis officials now echo the opinion of others in the food and biotech
industries that the decision to accept only the animal approval was a
Aventis agreed to buy the entire crop at a 25-cent premium this month, and
is selling much of it to feedlots and ethanol producers. The company is also
paying to test commingled corn in many grain elevators, and will buy any
corn in storage that has even a small amount of StarLink in it. Analysts
estimate the cost will approach $100 million.
Wichtrich said yesterday that in conversations with growers of StarLink
corn, the company learned that some did not know that the corn was approved
only for animal or industrial use, and that some knew the restrictions but
"A lot of this corn was grown on a small section of larger farms, and
sometimes farmers just harvested it all together," he said. "Sometimes they
didn't advise the grain elevators of the restrictions, and sometimes they
were too busy to remember. It just didn't work out."
Wichtrich said that Aventis has identified about 352,000 acres planted with
StarLink--a yellow corn mostly grown in the Midwest and upper Midwest--and
an additional 168,000 acres of buffer crops planted to protect against
pollen spread from the biotech corn. None of that corn was supposed to enter
the human food supply. He also said some farmers did not know that StarLink
had been planted near their crops, which were within the official buffer