US science panel mulls if StarLink
bio-corn safe for humans
WASHINGTON - A government science advisory panel gathered evidence on
Tuesday to decide if StarLink gene-spliced corn, a variety which triggered
a massive food recall last year, is safe for human consumption. The group
of independent scientists, assembled by the Environmental Protection
Agency, is expected to issue a report within a few weeks on whether small
amounts of StarLink in snack chips, taco shells, cereal and other foods
cause allergic reactions.
Aventis SA, the maker of the genetically altered corn variety, wants
EPA to establish a "tolerance level" or maximum amount of StarLink
food. The company maintains that StarLink poses no risk of allergic
reactions, and that it has already slipped into the food supply due to
accidental commingling by farmers, shippers and grain elevators. StarLink
is a yellow corn that contains a unique protein, Cry9C, which repels
destructive pests as the plant grows. The EPA approved StarLink in 1998
livestock feed and ethanol, but refused to allow it in human food because
of uncertainties about health effects.
FLORIDA MAN DESCRIBES REACTION
A Florida optometrist offered the panel photographs documenting his
allergic reaction to chips with StarLink. Dr. Keith Finger said he had
life-threatening reaction last September after eating yellow corn chips
containing small amounts of StarLink. A family member gave Finger an
injection of epinephrine, which helped ease his breathing. "I know
definitely allergic to it," Finger told reporters before addressing
panel. "I want accountability - the EPA and FDA should proceed with
very detailed testing of StarLink's health effects."
In April, Finger said he purchased bag of white corn chips and suffered
intense itching after eating just three or four of them. The leftover
were tested by the Food and Drug Administration, which found traces of
Cry9C DNA in them. In preparation for the science panel meeting, Finger
said he obtained some StarLink corn kernels and last weekend used a blender
to grind up a small amount of StarLink with water. Under the supervision
a physician friend, Finger said he deliberately ate less than a teaspoon
the corn mush and soon developed red welts and a rash. He went to a
hospital emergency room and was treated for an allergic reaction.
ANALYSIS OF SELF-REPORTED CASES
The Centers for Disease Control said blood tests of 17 consumers who
reported allergic reactions - including Finger - were negative for
StarLink. Carol Rubin, a veterinarian with the Centers for Disease Control,
said the 17 blood samples were collected from people who said they had
diarrhea, anaphylactic shock or rashes within 12 hours after eating a
The Food and Drug Administration tested 11 samples of leftover food from
many of the same consumers, who contacted the agency with complaints.
one sample - obtained from Finger - showed the presence of Cry9C DNA,
FDA said. The rest were negative.
Several scientists on the advisory panel questioned why the CDC and FDA
failed to contact the professional group representing physicians who
specialize in allergies to alert them to possible StarLink reactions.
panel members suggested that the government data on self-reported allergic
reactions may fall far short of actual cases. "This passive surveillance
system is not complete by any means," acknowledged Dr. Karl Klontz
Of the 63 self-reported complaints from US consumers from July 2000 through
April 2001, 37 appeared to be allergic reactions to some kind of food
material, Klontz said. Ten of the cases were not allergic reactions, and
reports could not be classified, he said. One consumer also reported that
the family cat had an allergic reaction after it ate a corn product
suspected of containing StarLink.
Richard Merrill, a lawyer for Aventis, told the panel that the proposed
tolerance was not a "back-door effort" to get StarLink approved
use in food. Instead, he said the EPA approval would help avoid a repeat
last autumn's costly recall of 200 foods with traces of StarLink. "The
detection of the protein at any level, by any method, currently renders
food legally unmarketable," Merrill said. "If every lot of food
corn were analyzed using the most sensitive test that can be developed,
some lots would undoubtedly be at risk for recall even though the level
Cry9C protein detected might pose no significant risk to any segment of
Matt Rand, a biotech expert with National Environmental Trust, urged
science panel to continue a ban on StarLink in human food until more
accurate allergy tests have been developed for StarLink. "With all
uncertainties, the EPA should not make a decision on StarLink corn yet,"