Aventis requestis temporary approval of StarLink maize variety for human consumption

by Emily Wilson
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The developer of a genetically modified maize variety approved only for feed use has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grant temporary, four-year approval of StarLink for human food use, just weeks after the maize found its way into the U.S. food chain.

Aventis CropScience submitted the request and a new StarLink safety evaluation to the E.P.A. on Oct. 25, more than a month after StarLink was discovered in Safeway, Mission Foods' and Kraft Taco Bell brand taco shells. The proposal attempts to end the controversy by demonstrating that StarLink poses a minimal threat to human health.

Unlike other "Bt corn" designed to protect against the European corn borer, StarLink contains a protein, Cry9C, that may cause allergies in humans, prompting the E.P.A. in 1998 to approve its use only for animal feed.

Aventis said the safety assessment showed that consumer exposure to food products containing Cry9C protein — even under worst-case scenarios — was many thousands of times smaller than that required to cause an allergic reaction.

Upon recent discovery of StarLink in U.S. food products, Aventis — at the E.P.A.'s recommendation — cancelled its registration of StarLink maize, restricting it from being planted for any agricultural purpose.

The repercussions of the StarLink distribution problems are yet to be fully discovered. Aventis has scrambled to track down a missing 4.8 million bushels of StarLink maize and has stopped sales of StarLink seeds for the 2001 growing season. There have been various corn product recalls, mainly for taco shells. ConAgra Foods Inc. and Kellogg Co. each temporarily closed corn processing plants for fear of infiltrated StarLink maize. And on Oct. 25, a Japanese consumer group identified traces of StarLink, which is not approved for any use in Japan, in domestically produced maize meal mix.

In an early step to address Japan's impending concerns, representatives of the U.S. Grains Council and the National Corn Growers Association traveled to Japan on Sept. 24. Japan imports more than 600 million bushels of U.S. maize annually. "A tough new law goes into effect in Japan on April 1, 2001 that sets a zero tolerance for the import of unapproved agricultural products," said Ken Hobbie, president and c.e.o. of the Grains Council. "Under the new law, importers can face severe fines and prison terms for importing unapproved varieties of corn into Japan. The StarLink taco shell incident sent a shock through the Japanese corn import industry and raised concern about the U.S. ability to comply with the new law."

Around 88% of this year's StarLink crop, totaling 80 million bushels grown on some 2,600 farms, remains on the farm, where the U.S.D.A. is requiring it to be fed to livestock or sealed in bins until it is ready for shipment. About 9.6 million bushels were already shipped to some 260 grain elevators, and only 1.2 million bushels remained to be found and contained at the end of October. Aventis is buying up the StarLink crop and reimbursing the U.S.D.A. for shipping and storage costs.

The controversy has raised numerous questions about the adequacy of U.S. measures to regulate GMOs. In response, the U.S. Senate created a new "Biotechnology Caucus" at the end of October to discuss the implications of the StarLink issue.

The caucus does not have legal authority or the standing of a full Senate committee, but it reflects the expanding level of concern over GMO regulation and control.

E.P.A. officials said they would not likely approve another gene-altered crop unless it is also approved for human consumption.

Sept. 18:

• Starlink maize first discovered in taco shells.

Sept. 22:

• Kraft Foods recalls Taco Bell brand taco shells.

Sept. 26:

• Aventis halts sales of Star-Link seeds for the 2001 growing season.

Oct. 12:

• Aventis cancels registration of the StarLink maize variety.

• Safeways Stores, Inc., and Mission Foods voluntarily recall taco shells.

Oct. 18:

• ConAgra stops production at a Kansas maize mill to test for StarLink.

• Kellogg also shuts down production at a maize processing plant for tests.

Oct. 25:

• A Japanese consumer group detects StarLink in domestically produced foods.

• Western Family Foods brand taco shells found to have traces of StarLink maize.

• Aventis proposes temporary 4-year StarLink approval for food.

Oct. 26:

• A newly formed Biotechnology Causus holds its first meeting.

• Western Family Foods recalls taco shells, tortilla chips and tostada shells.

Oct. 27:

• The U.S.D.A., E.P.A. and F.D.A. issue StarLink notice to exporters.