United States: GE-ed corn sparks regulatory concerns

by Danielle Knight

Washington, 24 Oct 2000 (IPS) -- The recent US recall of taco shells and flour containing a variety of corn not approved for human consumption is sparking concerns about whether US regulations are adequate to keep genetically engineered products segregated from conventional ones in the food supply.

Federal regulators say that millions of bushels of StarLink corn, a genetically modified variety approved only for animal feed that was found in taco shells in September, have made their way into the human food supply.

Several grocers have pulled certain corn products, like tacos and flour, from their shelves because they have been found to be contaminated with StarLink, developed by the French pharmaceutical giant Aventis. The corn was not approved for humans because of fears it might trigger allergic reactions.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has launched an investigation to determine how StarLink slipped into the food supply, critics say the episode calls the agency’s regulations and monitoring ability into question.

“This shows that the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations are ineffective,” says Matt Rand, spokesperson for a coalition of seven US environmental groups, called Genetically Engineered Food Alert, which first detected the unapproved corn variety in taco shells.

StarLink corn contains a protein which acts as a pesticide, killing the dreaded European corn borer. The modified variety of corn was grown on less than one percent of US corn fields this year, according to Aventis, which is trying to buy back as much of the corn as possible.

Since most European countries, including Britain, France and Italy, prohibit the sale of foods containing biotech ingredients unless they are clearly labelled, the StarLink contamination has provoked concerns that bioengineered grains could get into exported food.

“What this whole discussion throws up is whether ... the US system is working,” said John Richardson, deputy chief of the European Commission delegation in Washington last week. He said that part of the basis on which US genetically modified products are exported to Europe is the understanding that the US has the ability to distinguish between non-approved products and approved products.

According to Larry Bohlen, director of Friends of the Earth’s health and environment programme, the coalition is now testing products from other countries to see if StarLink or other genetically modified ingredients are present. “It is really only a matter of time before genetically engineered ingredients are found in exports which are supposed to contain only non-modified food,” says Bohlen.

Last week, the coalition of environmental groups, which includes Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Public Interest Research Group and the National Environmental Trust, sent letters to 30 major US food makers asking them what safeguards they are using to ensure that the StarLink corn is not in their products.

While Bohlen told IPS that none of the companies have responded to the letter, several companies, including ConAgra Foods and Kellogg Co., have reportedly been forced to suspend operations at plants to test for StarLink.

Jack Kennedy, spokesperson for Heinz, a major US food manufacturer, says the company is testing for the modified corn in all its foods and so far has not found any.

Earlier this year Heinz banned all genetically modified ingredients from its line of baby food. But for many of the processed foods it produces, Kennedy says, it is difficult to avoid using genetically engineered grains. “Sometimes it is virtually impossible to make a distinction,” he told reporters.

Tyson Foods Inc, the country’s largest poultry producer, announced last week that it has stopped feeding its chickens with StarLink corn because of consumer concerns. The Arkansas-based corporation is the first to stop the use of StarLink as an animal feed. “This is basically a precautionary move to avoid confusion among consumers,” Ed Nicholson, a spokesperson for Tyson Foods, told reporters.

Environmentalists are pushing for labelling regulations here which are similar to those in place in Europe, arguing that not enough is known yet about the long-term effects of genetically modified food.

Agribusiness and biotech industry groups oppose tighter regulations, arguing that US policy recognises modified foods as safe and no different from traditional products.

During the first week of October, a federal judge upheld the FDA’s policy on genetically modified food, throwing out a lawsuit filed by biotechnology opponents that sought to require that such foods be labelled.

Trying to calm worried consumers, the FDA has released proposed guidelines for companies which wish to voluntarily label their products. But environmentalists argue that this proposed policy means the FDA will not require any mandatory testing on genetically engineered food.

“Consumers will still be the guinea pigs testing the safety of these foods,” says Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group.