Traces of unapproved biotech corn found in taco shells

Fuelling the debate on genetically modified foods, a sample of taco shells was found to contain a form of engineered corn not approved for human consumption because it may cause harmful allergies.

by Danielle Knight

Washington, 18 Sep 2000 (IPS) -- Fuelling the debate on genetically modified foods, a sample of taco shells here was found to contain a form of engineered corn not approved for human consumption because it may cause harmful allergies.

The type of corn, known as Starlink or Cry9C, is currently only approved in the US for animal consumption. But when environmental and food safety organisations sent away samples of commonly found foods, the test results concluded that one percent of Taco Bell brand taco shells tested illegally contained this strain of corn.

“This is a legal violation and the US Food and Drug Administration clearly has the authority to seize the product if Taco Bell and Philip Morris do not recall it,” says Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group based here.

The corn has been modified in such a way that makes it difficult to digest by humans. Possible health effects could include nausea and anaphylactic shock, but most impacts are not currently known because only a few tests have been conducted, according to Jane Rissler, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Taco Bell brand taco shells are distributed by Kraft Foods Inc., a subsidiary of Philip Morris. Government regulators and Kraft say that if the tests are proven true, they will take the “necessary steps” to remove the product from store shelves across the country.

“If it is confirmed we will take all appropriate steps in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration,” says Michael Mudd, a spokesman for Kraft.

While officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have already started an investigation, environmental and public health organisations who conducted the original test on the tacos say this proves that the government is not adequately testing for food safety.

“Unfortunately, we had to step into the regulatory vacuum,” says Mendelson.”We were the ones that had to go out and test the food and notify the companies and the government.”

Mendelson’s organisation and others here have criticised the FDA for calling genetically engineered foods “substantially equivalent” to their unmodified counterparts. While half of all soybeans and a third of all corn in the United States is genetically altered, the regulatory agency does not test modified foods for harmful health impacts.

A coalition of gentech watchdog groups, known as the Genetically Engineered Food Alert, began independently sending away food for testing after studies conducted by researchers at Cornell University revealed that pollen from modified corn was poisonous to the larvae of monarch butterflies.

They sent samples of corn chips, frozen TV dinners, cereal and other food to Genetic Id, a company based in Iowa.

While biotech industry officials have said that it is easy to get a false positive result when testing for Cry9C, Genetic Id says it repeated the tests four times. Each time, researchers found one percent of the corn DNA to be from the unapproved corn.

The Starlink corn, manufactured by Aventis, is genetically altered to contain the plant pesticide Bacillus thuringienis, or Bt, which kills the dreaded European corn borer. Aventis has applied for an exemption to the government’s restriction of Starlink.

But so far the Environmental Protection Agency has only deemed the corn fit for animal consumption since the company’s data indicate “that Cry9C exhibits some characteristics of known allergens.”

Genetically Engineered Food Alert is calling on the FDA to quickly begin testing for the presence of Cry9C corn in all products containing yellow corn number 2, the grade of corn to which Starlink belongs.

According to the American Corn Growers Association, only nine percent of the conventional corn crop was segregated from genetically engineered corn in 1999. Products made with yellow corn number 2 may include many varieties of tortillas, corn chips, breakfast cereals and corn meal.

“Consumers need to know whether this is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Larry Bohlen, director of health and environment programmes at Friends of the Earth, which is part of the coalition.

Samples of taco shells from Taco Bell restaurants will also be tested soon, he says.

Concern about allergies caused by genetically modified foods have increased since 1995, when researchers found that a brazil nut gene spliced into a soybean caused allergies. People who were allergic to brazil nuts and ate the soybeans had an allergic reaction. That type of modified soybean though has never been marketed.

Uncertainty about whether genetically engineered food could cause harmful allergies is one reason consumer and environmental groups are demanding that modified food be labelled in the United States as it is in some European countries.

“Consumers are demanding a choice to either avoid or eat genetically engineered food and that choice is impossible without mandatory labelling,” says Rissler with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Proposed legislation is now circulating through Congress that would require mandatory labelling, not just voluntary labelling.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Illinois, is leading the call for more testing and labelling.

Upon hearing about the contaminated taco shells, Kucinich told reporters that he was worried that this was a “glimpse of things to come.”

“This discovery just shows that genetically engineered ingredients should not be on the grocery store shelves when so poorly regulated by the FDA,” he said.-SUNS4743