Unapproved biotech corn found in UK and Denmark

by Danielle Knight

Washington, 6 Nov 2000 (IPS) - Environmental activists announced Monday that they have found the genetically modified corn in food in the United Kingdom and Denmark that has not been approved for human consumption in Europe.

Roundup Ready corn, a variety produced by the US company Monsanto, was found in four products including tortilla chips, taco shells, polenta and corn flakes, according to Friends of the Earth, an international organisation based here.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that the biotech industry can’t control its products and government regulation is pathetically lax,” said Adrian Bebb, an activist with Friends of the Earth, UK.

The announcement comes on the heels of a controversy that began two months ago when environmentalists discovered the presence of Starlink corn in taco shells in the United States. Starlink, produced by Aventis, is a variety only approved for animal consumption in the United States because of allergy concerns. The shells have since been recalled nationwide.

Monday’s allegations are likely to fuel the debate over regulation and trade in genetically modified food in Europe where environmental and consumer groups have been warning that not enough research has been done to ensure whether these products are safe for human consumption.

After the Starlink was discovered in taco shells on US store shelves in September, Friends of the Earth began testing for genetically modified ingredients in other countries. In Europe, the group bought 31 different brands of foods that contain corn. They were then sent to GeneScan, a laboratory in Freiburg, Germany to look for genetically modified maize which cannot be sold legally in Europe. In the United Kingdom, the tests found that Phileas Fogg Authentic Tortilla Chips and house-brand tortilla chips sold by the grocers Safeway and Asda contained Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn. Kims Zapatas, a brand of tortilla chips purchased in Denmark, also tested positive for Roundup Ready.

The supermarkets found carrying the products said they would not take the tortilla chips off the shelves, but would carry out their own investigation.

Hugh Grant, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Monsanto questioned the environmentalists’ allegations and the accuracy of the tests. He said that “all resources” of the St. Louis, Missouri based company will be made available, including technical experts, to determine if the claims are true.

Grant also urged food authorities in the UK to obtain the data and samples used by Friends of the Earth.

In a statement, Grant said the company is “fully confident” of the safety of its products. “There are absolutely no safety concerns with Roundup Ready corn,” he said.

Roundup Ready corn is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate which Monsanto markets as Roundup. The biologically engineered seed had been altered to contain a mutated corn gene which also contains DNA from rice, sunflower and a type of bacteria.

In 1998, Monsanto applied for approval of its products in Europe. But in March of this year, the United Kingdom’s advisory committee on GM foods concluded that there was insufficient information on whether or not the genetically modified corn would cause allergies. The European Union’s top committee on biologically engineered foods, the Scientific Committee on Foods, was asked to consider Roundup Ready seed for approval in June but they have not released a decision.

Grant argued, as Monsanto has similarly asserted since it first began promoting genetically modified crops, that the use of biotechnology “clearly reduces” the amount of pesticides that are used in agriculture.

Some scientific studies, however, have contested the validity of whether genetically modified crops lessen the need for pesticides. A 1999 study by Charles Benbrook, an independent consultant in Idaho, for example, found that farmers growing the popular Roundup Ready soybeans, a similar product made by Monsanto, used two to five times more herbicides measured in pounds applied per acre, compared to other popular weed management.

“It is far from clear that biotechnology reduces the use of pesticides when studies show herbicide use up by factors of 10 or more on these kinds of crops,” said Larry Bohlen, director of health and environment programmes at Friends of the Earth.

The environmental organisation called on companies and retailers to recall all products found to illegally contain Roundup Ready corn. The activist group is also asking European authorities to investigate how the modified product got into the foodsuff.

If European authorities and Monsanto are able to verify that Roundup Ready is indeed found in products on shelves in the United Kingdom and Denmark, it will further add to concerns about whether US regulations are adequate to keep genetically engineered products segregated from conventional ones in the food supply. Since Starlink had slipped into the food supply, critics in Europe have already called into question the ability of the US Food and Drug Administration to regulate and monitor these products.

“With contamination by a different unapproved corn out in the open, US companies exporting to Europe could take a pounding,” said Bohlen.

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