Will Bio-Corn Get to the Plate?
April 24, 2001
WASHINGTON -- Aventis SA, the maker of a genetically engineered corn
prohibited in human food because of concerns about allergies, wants the
administration to allow some residue to occur in products to prevent more
recalls of chips, snacks and other foods.
Aventis' StarLink corn was inadvertently mixed with other varieties of
corn last year, triggering a recall of more than 300 kinds of processed
foods and disrupting U.S. corn exports to Japan and other major buyers.
The incident also raised questions about how thoroughly the U.S. government
was monitoring gene-spliced foods.
StarLink, which is engineered with a gene that repels pests when the
corn plant is growing, was approved in 1998 only for animal feed and
Aventis petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday, asking
regulators to establish a "tolerance level" of 20 parts per
StarLink in shipments arriving at corn mills for food processing. Currently,
the agency has zero tolerance for StarLink in human food.
A legal residue level is needed because trace amounts of StarLink are
to linger in the U.S. food supply for some time to come, the company said.
"If EPA does not act now, the ongoing disruption in the domestic
international food markets -- in the form of recalls and rejections of
exported products -- undoubtedly will escalate," Aventis said in
documents. The level of 20 parts per billion was selected because test
can reliably detect that amount of residue, it said.
Since 1998, Aventis has maintained that any amount of StarLink and its
unique protein, Cry9C, are safe for humans.
"Trace levels of Cry9C protein in human food pose no safety concern
present continuing and intractable regulatory issues in the absence of
appropriate tolerance," it said.
But an EPA advisory panel of independent scientists a few months ago
repeated its concern that StarLink could be dangerous for some consumers.
The panel concluded that while the amount of contaminated U.S. corn was
small, there was a "medium likelihood" that StarLink could cause
symptoms such as rashes, diarrhea and even life-threatening anaphylactic
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to soon
complete an allergenicity study of some two dozen consumers who complained
of allergic reactions from StarLink. The tests will show if blood samples,
from the people who reported symptoms, reacted to StarLink in the
Food safety and green groups said that Aventis' request to the government
was intended to help the company, not consumers.
"A tolerance level like this could relieve Aventis of some financial
pressures in the future," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a scientist with
Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Friends of the Earth, a group that has called for stricter testing
procedures for biotech foods, said the proposed 20 parts per billion was
unacceptable. "It's not possible to know what level of StarLink,
if any, is
acceptable in food because there hasn't been enough research," Larry
The Bush administration, which has had little to say so far about bio-foods,
is creating an interagency task force to look at genetically altered food
issues. A key topic will be how to standardize procedures among various
agencies on allergenicity assessments, according to a food industry source.
Aventis also said in its filing to the EPA that company research showed
level of StarLink in the U.S. food supply is "substantially lower"
thought by the science advisory panel and is continuing to decline.
Tests of StarLink processed by wet milling and dry milling showed the
procedures left "barely quantifiable" amounts of the bio-corn's
protein in foods, Aventis said.
In web milling, moisture is added to corn to soften and separate it into
starch, germ, fiber and protein. Those components are used to produce
syrup, sweeteners, ethanol and gluten for animal feed. The dry milling
process is used to produce corn flour for bread, muffins and other foods.
The EPA said in a statement on Tuesday that it would review Aventis'
petition and data.
The agency last month published its own scientific assessment that concluded
wet milling removed virtually all StarLink residue from human foods.
"Aventis' new data appear to indicate that potential exposure to
StarLink corn protein in finished food products is significantly lower
previous estimates," the agency said. "EPA will carefully evaluate
information as it continues to review Aventis' pending request to authorize
StarLink corn in the human food supply."
Last month, an Aventis executive said more than 430 million bushels of
in storage nationwide were contaminated with StarLink, a level much higher
than previously estimated. The government ordered all of the corn to be
strictly segregated and used only for animal feed or ethanol production.
Aventis also faces a class action lawsuit filed by American farmers who
contend they suffered financial losses from the commingling and cross
pollination of StarLink corn with other varieties.