StarLink Recall Causes Food Industry to Fight Among Themselves
New Concerns Rise on Keeping Track of Modified Corn

The New York Times
October 14, 2000


Efforts to trace shipments of a bioengineered corn unapproved for human
consumption have raised concern among food and grain industry officials
that the corn which has already been discovered in two brands of grocery
products may have made its way more widely into production channels for
the nation's food supply.

Millions of bushels of the unapproved corn, known as StarLink, have been
delivered to more than 350 grain elevators around the country. Government
and industry officials, uncertain how much of the corn has been properly
segregated and identified, are now pushing the operators to test their
supplies for evidence of contamination.

There is no evidence that the corn causes health problems in humans, but
the discoveries have led to nationwide recalls of two brands of
store-bought taco shells, a move that was extended yesterday to a larger
group of brands and products.

Food companies, many of which are now testing every shipment of corn for
signs of the unapproved grain, have reacted with dismay to growing evidence
of contamination, saying that it demonstrates a breakdown in the procedures
intended to keep products grown from genetically modified seeds separate
from conventional grains.

"This whole system has been self- policing by the seed industry," one food
company executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And obviously
it hasn't worked."

The concern about StarLink has strained relations between the nation's
grain companies and the developer of the corn, Aventis Crop Science, a
subsidiary of Aventis S.A. of France. For example, according to a
communication to the organization's members, the National Grain and Feed
Association has demanded that the company reveal the names of the more than
2,000 farmers growing StarLink crops, information that would allow the
industry to track potentially contaminated shipments more quickly.

But those requests have been refused. The grain association has since filed
a request with the Environmental Protection Agency under the Freedom of
Information Act, seeking the names of those farmers.

The StarLink corn is engineered to produce a protein toxic to a common
pest, the corn borer. It was cleared for animal feed or industrial products
in 1998, but the E.P.A. withheld approval for use in food meant for human
consumption because tests showed properties indicating that it might cause

On Sept. 29, shortly after the first detection of contaminated taco shells,
Aventis CropScience said it had reached an agreement with three federal
agencies to work together to buy up all of this year's StarLink crop and to
ensure that it had not entered the food supply.

Since then, the company has contacted the farmers, urging them to store the
corn until further notice and questioning them about how the product had
been handled.

What was found, according to industry officials who have been briefed on
the results, is that not all farmers had signed required contracts
obligating them to follow certain procedures intended to keep StarLink out
of the food supply. As a result, the company is now urging elevator
operators to begin testing corn shipments for the presence of the modified

"This is a very sensitive matter, and everyone's role in preventing
StarLink corn from entering unapproved channels is critical," John
Wichtrich, vice president and general manager of Aventis CropScience, wrote
to elevator operators. In the letter, Mr. Wichtrich urged the elevator
operators "to take those measures you believe necessary to insure that the
corn you purchase is suitable for the use you intend."

Mr. Wichtrich did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment.

Among the measures the company recommends is that elevator operators ask
corn growers about each delivery to determine if it contains StarLink, or
if it was grown less than 660 feet from a crop of the bioengineered corn.
Corn fields grown in that proximity risk contamination by the bioengineered
crop. While Aventis informed farmers that "buffer zones" of that size were
necessary between StarLink and other corn crops, some farmers have been
found not to have strictly adhered to the instruction.

"The food industry is very concerned that StarLink has contaminated a
larger portion of the grain supply," one government official involved in
the matter said.

Two grain industry officials said that based on the information they had
received, as much as 100,000 acres of corn may have been grown within the
buffer zones, in addition to the 315,000 acres for which StarLink seed was

In the scramble to keep StarLink out of the food supply, a cottage industry
has emerged in the last two weeks for testing kits to determine evidence of
Cry9C protein, which is present in the bioengineered corn. The kits, which
are used to test corn grain but not processed food, are manufactured by
Strategic Diagnostics of Newark, Del.

The most common kit, known as a strip test, is used by food and grain
companies at the point of delivery, providing information within minutes
whether a corn shipment has been contaminated with StarLink. An individual
strip test is designed to detect the StarLink protein in concentrations
greater than 0.25 percent, although the sensitivity of the test can be
improved by repeating the test or by increasing the number of kernels of
corn sampled ó from 125 to as many as 400.

At a meeting on Tuesday with officials from the Department of Agriculture,
the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration,
the company spelled out details of its contacts with 2,070 farmers who have
grown the StarLink crops.

In the presentation, according to industry executives who have been briefed
on the results, Aventis CropScience said that it had determined that 10.7
million bushels of StarLink had been fed to livestock, while 47 million
bushels remained on the farm or unharvested. Slightly less than nine
million bushels has been delivered into commercial channels.

Altogether, the StarLink grain represents roughly one-half of 1 percent of
this year's corn harvest, which totaled more than 10 billion bushels.

In registered letters to growers of StarLink, the company has urged them to
keep the bioengineered corn stored on the farm until they receive further
instructions about where it should be delivered. The farmers will be paid a
premium over the market price for the corn in exchange for keeping it stored.

The StarLink corn was first found last month in store-bought taco shells
distributed under the Taco Bell brand by Kraft Foods, which issued a
nationwide recall. On Wednesday, a similar finding was made in house-brand
taco shells sold by the Safeway supermarket chain. The two products were
made of yellow corn from the same mill, run by Azteca Milling in Plainview,

Yesterday, Mission Foods, which produced the Safeway shells, announced a
recall of all its tortilla products made with yellow corn on the chance
that some might contain StarLink corn. The company, a subsidiary of the
Gruma Group of Mexico, which is based in Irving, Tex., sells products under
the Mission name as well as numerous private- label brands.

Mission declined to name which other major grocery chains carried its
private-label products, citing confidentiality agreements.

"This is a voluntary recall but we have strongly recommended it to them,"
said Peter Pitts, a spokesman for Mission. "We did this after conversations
with our customers and the F.D.A. It's prudent. The most important thing is
confidence in the safety of the food chain."

The company said it stopped buying corn on Sept. 23 from the Plainview
mill. Now it plans to take the additional step of making all of its
products from white corn "until there is clarification from the government
on the safety of the yellow corn supply."

Azteca Milling, also a Gruma subsidiary based in Irving, announced its own
voluntary recall of all yellow corn flour yesterday. Dan Lynn, the
company's president, said it would mill only white corn because that was
the "surest way to bolster confidence" that no corn unapproved for human
consumption had entered the food chain.

All efforts to keep StarLink out of the food supply entail costs, whether
for testing kits, storage or diversion of corn purchased for food into
channels for feed. And already, in preparation for potential litigation,
grain operators and food companies are reviewing the original registration
for StarLink that the E.P.A. granted Aventis. That registration was
effectively revoked earlier this week, grain and food companies are hoping
but it can be used to force Aventis to pick up the ultimate cost of the
current effort.

For example, one term in the registration states that Aventis "is liable
for the actions of its customers in regard to meeting the terms and
limitations of this registration."

In a communication this week with grain processors and elevator operators,
the grain and feed association cited that statement. "Thus," the
association wrote, "companies may wish to carefully document for future
action instances in which StarLink corn was unknowingly delivered to a

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