Biotech Critics Cite Unapproved Corn in Taco Shells

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By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2000; Page A02

A form of biotech corn not allowed in food because of concerns it could
trigger allergies has been detected in grocery store Taco Bell taco shells,
a coalition of biotech critics will report Tuesday.

The type of corn, produced by Aventis Corp. and called StarLink, was
approved by federal authorities in 1998 as an animal feed. But because
the corn has been genetically modified in a way that makes it more difficult
to break down in the human gut, the agencies have refused to approve it
for human use.

The possibility that the modified corn made it into food products anyway
has federal officials concerned, with several calling the development "very
serious" if confirmed by further testing.

"If there has been a violation of our licensing process, then we would have
a very great concern," said Stephen Johnson, an assistant administrator for
pesticides at the Environmental Protection Agency. "Likewise, we would
want to make sure we are completely protecting the public health."

Officials at the Food and Drug Administration, who called the possible
presence of StarLink corn in human food "unlawful," said yesterday that
the agency has already started an investigation.

If the tests are confirmed, they will surely raise the volume in the already
contentious debate over biotech foods, which in recent years have become
commonplace in American grocery stores. While most of the country's political,
scientific and commercial establishment has embraced biotechnology as safe
and useful, activists continue to raise questions about its use and hope to inspire
the kind of widespread backlash now present in Europe.

The group that had the taco shells tested--the Genetically Engineered Food
Alert--has asked the FDA to recall the products immediately.

"This corn is absolutely not supposed to be in our food, but an independent
lab found it there anyway," said Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth, a
member of the coalition. "This shows a major regulatory failure and raises
some real human health concerns."

The group said this first finding was potentially "the tip of an iceberg," and
that it could be in many other products as well. Samples of taco shells from
Taco Bell restaurants will also be tested soon, group members said.

The taco shells tested were manufactured in Mexico for Taco Bell and were
distributed by Kraft Foods Inc. Michael Mudd, Kraft's vice president for
corporate affairs, said that the corn was bought by a Texas miller from
farmers in six states, and that the miller had ordered a conventional form
of corn.

"This is a serious issue and Kraft is doing everything we can to confirm
whether or not this material is present in the product," Mudd said. "If it is
confirmed, we will immediately take--in consultation with the FDA--all
appropriate steps."

Biotech industry officials, however, also questioned the testing techniques
of Genetic Id, the Iowa company that concluded the unapproved corn was
in the taco shells. At least once before, the company came to conclusions about
the presence of genetically modified materials that were later proven inaccurate.
Officials of Genetic Id, which does substantial testing of American products
being shipped to Europe, have in the past been publicly skeptical about

Industry officials also said that testing for the protein is "not at all simple, and
it is easy to get a false positive."

Aware of the sensitivity of the issue, the company repeated the tests on the
taco shells, according to Genetic Id vice president Jeffrey Smith. He said
that company policy is to duplicate each test, so the taco shell sample was
actually tested four times using a process called polymerase chain reaction.
Each time, he said, researchers found 1 percent of the corn DNA to be
from the unapproved corn, and found the presence of other biotech material
as well.

"Our specialty is to help agriculture and the food industry with issues of
[genetically modified organism] identification and segregation," Smith said.
"This is a very controversial field, and our findings have been attacked before.
But we have all the necessary documentation to show what we did and what
we found." He also said that some of the sample remained.

Bohlen of Friends of the Earth said that he hoped the FDA or EPA would
quickly test the shells to settle the issue. "We've been saying for a long time
that federal authorities should be doing this testing, but so far it's been left to
groups like us," he said.

The StarLink corn is genetically modified to contain the plant pesticide
Bacillus thuringienis, or Bt, which kills the destructive European corn borer.
While there are many varieties of Bt corn now, StarLink is the only one that
contains the Cry9C protein. That substance, which Aventis officials say
provides a useful alternative to other more commonly used Bt corn varieties,
is what federal officials have concluded might cause allergies in some people.

The issue of food allergies caused by biotech products is a very sensitive one
in the industry and is among the top health concerns raised about biotechnology.
In an often discussed case, researchers in 1995 spliced a Brazil nut gene into
soybeans in an effort to create a more nutritious soybean. But that protein
turned out to be a major cause of Brazil nut allergies, and could have caused
real harm to those who avoid the nut. That form of soybean never came to
market because of the allergy concerns.

StarLink corn is the only biotech variety allowed for animals but not approved
for human use, FDA officials said. Company officials have been trying to win
federal approval for human use, but a special EPA science panel concluded in
July that "there is no evidence to indicate that Cry9C is or is not a potential
food allergen." There is no previous history of human dietary exposure to the
Cry9C protein to guide researchers.

Aventis officials said that StarLink corn is not widely used now, and that
farmers who grow it must learn how to handle the corn.

"We have difficulty imagining how our corn could end up in the human food
supply," said Aventis spokeswoman Margaret Gadsby. "We have in place
a stewardship program that is focused on keeping the corn in the proper
channels, and it has had the full participation of the corn industry. We have
every indication it is working well."

Although biotech crops are widespread, there have been only a few documented
instances of their inappropriate presence. Early this year, for instance, some
unapproved varieties of biotech canola were found growing in Europe. Critics
say more examples have not been found because no government agencies are
charged with finding them.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio,) a biotech skeptic, said discovery of the
unapproved corn shows that genetically engineered ingredients are not well

In a release from the Genetically Engineered Food Alert, Kucinich said, "It
concerns me and should concern American consumers that this is a glimpse
of things to come as genetically engineered products are rushed to store shelves
without real mandatory safety testing and labeling programs in place."

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