BioDemocracy News #30 (Nov. 2000)
StarLink: More Bad News for Biotech

BioDemocracy News #30 (Nov. 2000) StarLink: More Bad News for Biotech
News & Analysis on Genetic Engineering, Factory Farming, & Organics
by: Ronnie Cummins

BioDemocracy News is a publication of the Organic Consumers Association

In This Issue:

Quotes of the Month:
Denials - Then Mass Recalls
StarLink Hits the Fan
FDA - No Labeling, No Safety Testing
International Fallout
Cargill Segregating
Japan Says No Thanks
Latin Fallout
Scientific Warning

Quotes of the Month:

"Agricultural biotechnology will find a supporter occupying the White
House next year, regardless of which candidate wins the election in
November..." Monsanto's electronic newsletter

"The [StarLink corn] protein, known as Cry9C and not found in other
crops that are genetically modified, is safe for animals but may
trigger allergic reactions in humans, including fever, rashes or
diarrhea, according to government scientists." Washington Post, "Corn
Woes Prompt Kellogg to Shut Down Plant" 10/21/00

"I think they ought to leave nature alone. There is a reason food
grows like it does.'' A consumer, Krista Beddo, shopping in a
supermarket near Monsanto's headquarters in St. Louis, Associated
Press, "Concern Surfaces Over Taco Recall" 10/25/00

"U.S. grain exporters expressed relief on Friday after the government
lifted export restrictions on shipments tainted with traces of an
unapproved biotech corn, allowing shipments of previously banned corn
to Latin America, Asia and Europe. While the Clinton administration
action removes some legal liability for exporters, companies said they
are still worried about losing overseas sales to other nations...
Archer Daniels Midland executives said its [StarLink-tainted] corn
shipments would be traveling to South America, Europe, [and] Mexico,
but not to Japan. 'I think we are going to have to wait a little bit
on Japan,' an ADM spokesperson stated.' " Reuters 10/27/00

The Gene Giants suffered a serious setback on September 18, when the
Genetically Engineered Food Alert (GEFA) coalition
revealed that an illegal, likely allergenic variety (Cry9C) of
genetically engineered (GE) corn called StarLink had been detected in
a major US consumer food product, Kraft taco shells. The GE Food
Alert Coalition, which tested the taco shells and broke the news about
StarLink, is made up of seven US groups, Friends of the Earth, Organic
Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network, Center for Food
Safety, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, National
Environmental Trust, and the US Public Interest Research Group.

The StarLink scandal made headlines, generated thousands of news
articles and TV clips, and brought home the realization to American
consumers, that the nation's supermarkets are filled with an extensive
inventory of untested, unlabeled, genetically engineered foods. In
1998 the US Environmental Protection Agency had approved the
commercial cultivation of StarLink - corn spliced with a powerful Bt
toxin (bacillus thuringiensis). Developed by a subsidiary of the
French-German biotech conglomerate Aventis, StarLink was approved only
for animal feed because of fears that this controversial Cry9C variety
(50 to100 times more potent than other Bt-spliced varieties) could set
off food allergies in humans.

Critics of GE food have warned for years that splicing foreign
proteins into common food products, proteins which in most cases
humans have never eaten before, can set off dangerous food
allergies-with symptoms ranging from fever, rashes, and diarrhea to
anaphylactic shock and sudden death. The FDA admits that eight percent
of all US children are now plagued by food allergies, and that the
situation is growing worse. Nutritionists warn of a suspected link
between food allergies and asthma. Even the staid New England Journal
of Medicine warned in its March 14, 1996 issue that unlabeled
genetically engineered foods are "uncertain, unpredictable, and

In 1996, a gene-altered soybean spliced with Brazil nut DNA patented
by what is now Dupont's seed subsidiary, Pioneer Hi-Bred, was pulled
off the market before commercialization after researchers learned that
it could set off a deadly allergy in humans. Even after this
near-disaster, Plant Genetic Systems, the developer of StarLink corn
(PGS was later bought out by Aventis), apparently continued
gene-splicing Brazil Nut DNA into rapeseed, potatoes, tobacco, beans,
and peas in European field tests in the open environment. (See Plant
Molecular Biology (1998) 37:829-838.)

Denials - Then Mass Recalls

The biotech industry, Kraft/Phillip Morris, and the EPA at first tried
to deny the validity of the GEFA lab tests, but within days public
pressure forced Kraft, the largest food corporation in America, to
recall 2.5 million boxes of the corn tacos. This action was followed
by a halt of sales of Cry9C seeds by Aventis on Sept. 26, and a formal
recall order issued by the USDA on Oct. 9 for all 350,000 acres of
StarLink corn planted across the US. GEFA then struck again and forced
further recalls (Safeway corn taco shells, Mission Foods corn
products, Western Family brand corn tacos) by announcing on Oct. 11
and Oct. 25 that StarLink corn had been detected in other brand-name
products being sold in thousands of supermarkets. In the wake of the
StarLink crisis, some of the largest US food and animal feed
processors, Kellogg, ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, and Tyson,
either temporarily closed their grain mills or announced mandatory
testing for Cry9C corn. Meanwhile, the White House sent emergency
teams to Japan and Europe, trying to reassure major US trading
partners that the StarLink controversy would be kept under control.

By the end of October, consumer confidence in the safety of GE foods
was severely shaken. Thousands of farmers and grain elevator operators
expressed anger at Aventis and the biotech industry. The state
Attorney General's office in Iowa criticized Aventis and seed dealers
for not telling farmers to keep StarLink out of the human food chain.
As one Iowa grain elevator operator told the Washington Post on Oct.
25, "I think we're just hitting the tip of the iceberg here. We just
don't know what's in those elevators, and when we start letting this
stuff go and it's tested, it's going to get worse."

StarLink Hits the Fan

Aventis, Kraft, Safeway, Mission Foods, Western Family, Shaw's, Food
Lion, Randalls, Kroger, Albertson's, H.E.B., and scores of other food
companies and supermarket chains (not to mention grain elevators and
farmers) have begun totaling up several hundred million dollars in
losses. Consumers claiming to have been poisoned by StarLink corn
products filed a multi-million dollar class-action suit in Chicago.
Kraft and a number of supermarket chains have voiced dissatisfaction
with the lack of oversight of GE crops by US regulatory agencies.

The EPA is caught between a rock and a hard place: fending off
pressure by the biotech industry to reverse itself and declare that
Cry9C corn was safe for humans, and on the other hand, resisting
pressure from public interest groups to take all of the nation's Bt
crops-corn, cotton, potatoes, and soybeans-off the market because of
their evermore obvious hazards. Meanwhile, America's overseas allies
are trying to figure out what to do about the growing demand on the
part of consumers in their own countries to close the door on billions
of dollars of GE-tainted US agricultural imports.

The US announcement on Oct. 27 that they would let Archer Daniels
Midland, Cargill, ConAgra and other grain exporters ship
StarLink-contaminated corn to international markets only made matters
worse. In effect the grain cartel and the White House were telling
America's best overseas customers: Here, take this contaminated corn.
Americans are refusing to eat this stuff, Tyson Foods, the largest
poultry producer in the US, won't even feed it to their chickens, but
you can eat it.

The fallout and collateral damage from the StarLink scandal will
likely continue. As the New York Times stated Oct. 17, Aventis may be
hit with a barrage of lawsuits: "Just what farmers knew and when they
knew it could end up playing a role in lawsuits growing out of the
affair, according to lawyers who handle agriculture cases. Aventis and
the seed companies might have a hard time fending off liability for
the expenses of farmers, grain elevators, millers and food companies
in sorting out the mess if they did not do enough to head off
foreseeable risks that mixing would occur."

The appalling lack of US government regulation and the greed of
so-called Life Science corporations to rush untested, and in this
case, likely dangerous products to market have now become obvious,
even in the heartland of agbiotech, the United States. Polls taken
before the StarLink scandal broke showed that the majority (51% in a
poll by Angus Reid) of Americans and Canadians (60% in a poll by
Unilever) were already opposed to genetically engineered foods, while
an overwhelming majority (80-94%) support mandatory labeling, mainly
so that they can avoid buying these controversial foods. US farmers,
and even a number of large food corporations, have already begun
cutting back on their use of GE seeds or food ingredients, as reported
previously in BioDemocracy News #29 While 33% of US
corn acreage was GE last year, this year it fell to 19.5%. Whether or
not the StarLink debacle represents a mortal blow to the first
generation of GE foods and crops remains to be seen. Certainly a
review of recent global developments indicates that the crisis of
credibility surrounding genetically engineered foods is steadily

FDA - No Labeling, No Safety Testing

* The US government's "no labeling" and "no safety testing" policy has
become a serious liability and source of controversy. The Center for
Food Safety and other public interest groups filed a major lawsuit in
1998 in US Federal Court to take GE foods and crops off the market.
On October 2, the lawsuit was headed off by the FDA, but only by
admitting in court that they actually have had no real policy in place
on genetically engineered foods and crops since 1992. In effect, all
so-called "regulation" up until now has been completely voluntary on
the part of Monsanto, Aventis, and the rest of the biotech industry.
Commenting on the Oct. 2 decision, Center for Food Safety attorney
Andrew Kimbrell stated, "This court decision means that for almost a
decade these novel foods have gone virtually unregulated in the United
States. American consumers have been used as unknowing guinea pigs..."

* Inside sources report that the FDA has postponed publishing new
proposed regulations on genetically engineered foods, at least until
after the November elections. In the aftermath of the StarLink
controversy, the FDA understands that its forthcoming proposed
regulations (no mandatory labeling, no mandatory safety testing, no
required liability insurance) will likely set off a huge public
backlash during the legally required public comment period. But
federal officials and the Gene Giants are caught in a terrible bind.
If they do what most of the public wants and require mandatory
pre-market safety testing and labeling, leading food corporations and
supermarkets will do what they are already doing in Europe and Asia,
that is remove GE foods and ingredients from their brand-name
products. Stores won't sell products branded with the "skull and
crossbones" of the GE label, and farmers will be very reluctant to
grow these crops. On the other hand if the FDA, USDA, and EPA continue
to do the bidding of the biotechnology industry, they risk losing
billions of dollars in US export sales, not to mention the political
risks of provoking the ire of US consumers, who are now apparently
awakening to the GE food controversy with a vengeance.

International Fallout

* On the international front, the leading producers of genetically
engineered crops, the US (74% of all GE crops), Canada (10% of all GE
crops), and Argentina (15%), face a similar dilemma. If they try to
use the hammer of economic sanctions from the World Trade Organization
to force Frankenfoods down the throats of the WTO's other 131
nation-state members, they risk provoking a trade war and possibly
even a meltdown of the entire global "Free Trade" system. If they
don't use the police and enforcement power of the WTO, however, more
and more countries are going to make it harder and harder for untested
and unlabeled GE products to get into their countries. For example:

* Europe, which has not approved a new GE crop since April 1998, told
the US on Oct. 11 according to the Bureau of National Affairs journal,
"that the only way the European Union's de facto moratorium on new GM
(genetically modified) seeds is likely to be lifted is for US farmers
to be required to segregate genetically modified crops from those
grown from traditional seeds..."

* Meanwhile new human health fears over antibiotic resistance genes in
GE cattle feeds are prompting Europe's leading food producers and
supermarket chains to ban GE animal feeds in their meat and dairy
production. Recently a government advisory board in Britain, the
Advisory Committee on Animal Feeding Stuffs, admitted that antibiotic
resistant marker genes found in genetically engineered foods and
animal feeds may be able to transfer antibiotic resistance to the
bacteria in animals' guts, giving rise to dangerous pathogens in
humans that can't be killed by traditional antibiotics. German
scientists earlier this year-in a story widely reported across
Europe-found that antibiotic resistant genes from GE rapeseed plants
were combining with bacteria in the stomachs and intestines of bees.
BBC reported on Oct. 6 that the UK's major grocery chains, Iceland,
Sainsbury, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer's, and Asda are all removing GE
ingredients from animal feed. A recent UK poll commissioned by Friends
of the Earth found 63% of British shoppers wanting supermarkets to
drop GM ingredients from animal feeds. As reported in BioDemocracy
News #29, the European Commission and the Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations are now both calling for mandatory
labeling of animal feeds, a move that analysts predict will all but
kill non-segregated, GE-tainted US grain exports to Europe and Asia.

Cargill Segregating

* Cargill, the world's largest grain company, announced in September
that they are expanding their contract production and marketing of
non-genetically engineered corn, and will strictly segregate these
varieties at their processing plants in Paris, Illinois, Indianapolis,
Indiana, and Liverpool, England. As Cropchoice News
reported Sept. 29, "Cargill's latest parlay into non-GMO comes at time
when it and other big grain processors continue to downplay the demand
for non-biotech grain. But like ADM and ConAgra, Cargill is making
moves into the non-GMO market even as they suggest it is unimportant."
Cargill's shift reaffirms the conclusion of a recent study carried out
by professor David Bullock at the University of Illinois which found
that US grain handlers can efficiently and economically segregate GE
and non-GE grain varieties by simply designating specific grain
elevators, grain processing plants, and transportation facilities as
either GE or non-GE.

* Government officials in Taiwan announced Oct. 17 that they will
follow the lead of other Asian and Pacific countries and require
mandatory labeling of food with genetically engineered ingredients.
According to officials, labeling requirements will come into force in
2001-with similar measures being implemented in South Korea and Japan.
Taiwan is a major importer of US grains, importing over 4.5 million
metric tons of corn last year. According to Cropchoice News, "The
government's decision is in response to intense pressure and follows
publication of a Gallup poll in which 74% of Taiwanese said they
expected the government to require labels on GMO food." According to
Reuters news agency, Uni-Food Enterprises, Taiwan's largest food
company, reacted to the news by promising to comply with the labeling
requirements and move toward using non-genetically engineered
ingredients. Uni-Food Enterprises, with $2.6 billion in annual sales,
produces animal feeds, dairy products, frozen foods, instant noodles,
and soft drinks.

Japan Says No Thanks

* According to an Associated Press story Oct. 25, Japanese authorities
have warned the United States not to export StarLink corn to Japan.
Government officials were embarrassed after a public interest group,
the Consumers Union of Japan, announced in Tokyo that it had found
traces of StarLink corn in snack foods sold in Japanese stores as well
as in imported animal feed. StarLink corn is prohibited in both human
and animal feed in Japan. An earlier AP story on Oct. 24 reported that
an entire 55,000 ton shipload of US corn destined for Japan was
rejected after testing positive for StarLink, "sending shock waves
through importers in Japan as well as other Asian countries such as
South Korea and Taiwan." According to the AP "Japan imports about 60
percent of its food, much of it from the United States. In 1999, Japan
imported 15.9 million tons of corn from the United States, including
10.8 million tons for animal feed, the Foreign Ministry said. The
remaining 5.1 million tons were for food, mostly for corn starch."
Korea imports about eight million tons of corn per year from the US.
The Consumers Union of Japan and allied consumer groups in South Korea
are calling for a moratorium on the importation of all GE foods into
their countries. In a recent poll 82% of Japanese consumers said they
were opposed to genetically engineered food-the highest level of
resistance in the world.

*Worried officials from the U.S. Grains Council and the National Corn
Growers Association, two major agribusiness trade association groups,
rushed to Tokyo in late September to outline industry plans to channel
StarLink into "approved markets" and keep it out of shipments to
Japan. The White House also dispatched a trade delegation to Europe.
According to, an "emergency meeting" took place in
Washington on Oct. 6 with agribusiness representatives meeting with
high officials from the Clinton and Gore administration. A National
Corn Growers Association official expressed the hope at this meeting
that Japan would soon approve StarLink for animal feed, but after the
recent developments in Japan, this scenario appears unlikely.

Latin Fallout

* The StarLink scandal has spread into Mexico and Latin America as
well, with TV coverage by networks such as Telemundo, Univision, and
CNN. According to Reuters, Mexico Greenpeace protesters on Oct. 11
"wearing white overalls and mime-like white masks entered an upscale
Mexico City supermarket and boldly labeled mainstream corn flour
products that contain genetically modified corn with stickers bearing
a giant "X," for "X-perimental." Corn flour is the main ingredient in
tortillas, Mexico's most important food product. Greenpeace also
announced in October that 450 tortilla factories across Mexico will
use only locally produced (non-GE) corn in their products. Mexico is
the world center of biodiversity for corn, with 25,000 varieties found
in the country. Environmentalists warn that pollen and "genetic
pollution" from genetically engineered corn plants could cause
irreparable harm to Mexico's native corn varieties. Mexico is also the
winter home for Monarch butterflies, who migrate south from Canada and
the United States. An important study at Cornell University in 1999
found that the pollen from Bt corn kills Monarch butterflies.

* According to a report posted by UK geneticist Mae-Wan Ho on the
internet Oct. 18, Argentina, the second largest producer of
genetically engineered crops in the world after the United States, "is
having second thoughts as the world market [for GE soybeans and corn]
collapses. This was the message conveyed by both the Environment
Minister Ruben Dario Patrouilleauz, who headed the Argentinean
delegation to the Biosafety Protocol Conference in Montreal, and the
Director General of Cultural Affairs, Raul Alfredo Estrado Oyuela.
Both spoke at a special Parliamentary debate on agricultural
biotechnology in La Plata, Federal Province of Buenos Aires, on Sept.
26." Monsanto has been very successful thus far in getting 84% of
Argentina's soybean farmers to plant GE (Roundup Ready) soybeans. This
may soon change however as EU markets for Argentina's processed oils
and animal feed begin to close down, and as EU and Asian markets for
Brazilian soybeans (where GE soya is illegal) continue to rapidly

Scientific Warning

* On the scientific front, the StarLink controversy has shined the
spotlight once again on the hazards of Bt-spliced crops in general,
not just the Cry9C variety. In dramatic testimony presented to the EPA
Oct. 20, a highly regarded international expert, Dr. Michael Hansen of
the Consumers Union, pointed out that: (1) The EPA has ignored an
EPA-funded study that shows that Bt toxins have induced signs of
allergenicity in agricultural field workers, as well as an additional
study indicating allergenicity in lab rats; (2) the EPA has failed to
require tests of all Bt crops for allergenicity using the blood serum
and chemical reagents from these earlier studies-even though these
tests could be done quickly with little expense; (3) the EPA have
failed to carry out adequate safety tests for StarLink or any of the
other Bt crops which they have approved; (4) government "acute
toxicity" protocols are based on the erroneous scientific assumption
that Bt toxins generated by gene-spliced plants in the field are
identical to Bt toxins produced by bacteria in the laboratory; and (5)
the government continues to downplay the potential hazards of
antibiotic resistant marker (ARM) genes-found in Bt crops and all
genetically engineered foods-even though recent studies underline that
ARM genes have the ability to transfer antibiotic resistance to soil
bacteria, bees, mammals, and other organisms, including humans. As
Hansen reminded the EPA in May 1999, the British Medical Association,
which represents some 85% of the doctors in Britain, released a report
calling, in part, for a prohibition on the use of antibiotic
resistance marker genes in genetically engineered plants. For Dr.
Hansen's full testimony see:

As Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth stated in a press release Oct.
20, "The EPA should not allow Bt corn to be planted next year unless
they can assure mill workers, farmers and rural residents that they
will not develop allergies and respiratory problems. Farmers could be
affected and not even know the reason why due to the EPA's failure to
test for health impacts."

* In a related scientific development, researchers at the University
of Minnesota have found that Bt corn does indeed pose a major hazard
to Monarch butterflies, since Monarchs are found in concentrated
numbers in and around milkweed plants in cornfields throughout the
corn growing season. Researchers were surprised to find, according to
an Oct. 25 article in the Los Angeles Times, "just as many" Monarchs
were breeding and feeding within cornfields as in nonagricultural
sites. In other words millions of Monarch butterflies throughout the
Midwest corn belt are feeding on their only food source, milkweed
plants, just at the same time that Bt corn plants are shedding their
toxic pollen, pollen which lab and field tests have conclusively shown
are poisonous to the butterflies. The biotech industry has worked
overtime in the past year trying to maintain that Bt pollen poses
insignificant risks to Monarch butterflies. Besides the Bt threat,
scientists have warned that Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, sprayed on
GE soybeans and other crops, kills off the Monarch caterpillar's sole
food source, the milkweed plant.

Critics have pointed out that not only is Bt killing Monarchs, but
that it is also killing beneficial soil microorganisms and thereby
damaging the entire soil food web; as well as killing beneficial
insects such as lacewings and ladybugs. Scientists also warn that bees
and birds are likely being harmed by eating insects that have ingested
the Bt toxin. In addition, organic farmers, 2/3 of whom in the United
States use a non-genetically engineered form of Bt spray as an
emergency pest management tool, have pointed out that crop pests
(beetles, boll worms, corn borers) will inevitably develop resistance
to widely cultivated Bt-spliced crops, creating superpests that will
overwhelm organic farmers and make organic agriculture more difficult,
if not impossible. For all of these reasons, Greenpeace, the Center
for Food Safety, and a broad coalition of public interest
groups-including the Organic Consumers Association-are preparing
litigation to have all genetically engineered Bt crops taken off the

* Finally, on another scientific note, even the pro-biotech New
Scientist magazine Oct. 7 (UK) pointed out what has now become
painfully obvious: if biotech companies and the FDA are unable to keep
an unapproved variety like StarLink out of the human food chain and
contained in restricted farm plots, what are they going to do once the
next generation of bio-pharm plants begin to be commercialized, plants
containing vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs, crops that could harm
and poison unsuspecting consumers? As the magazine concluded, "We
can't ignore the taco fiasco... Why was it left to Friends of the
Earth to commission the tests that found StarLink in taco shells? The
food industry needs to get its act together before the new generation
of modified plants arrives. Next time, the consequences could be

For the moment the proponents of the Biotech Century seem to have
survived the latest storm. Unlike the FDA's last recall of a
genetically engineered product, the nutritional supplement
l-Tryptophan, in 1989, which left in its wake 37 deaths and 5,000
injuries, there are no dead bodies of StarLink victims visible on the
TV news, but the Frankenfoods controversy continues to grow. The
question seems to be no longer, if there will be a biotech Chernobyl,
but only when. Stayed tuned to BioDemocracy News and the OCA website for further developments.

###End of BioDemocracy News # 30###

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