September 19, 2000

Michael Johnsen

Genetically Modified Corn Unsuitable For Human Consumption Found in Grocery Store Foods

A report released by the Genetically Engineered Food Alert (GEFA), a coalition of biotech critics, reveals that their tests of Taco Bell taco shells contain a form of genetically modified corn not allowed in food by the FDA because of concerns it could trigger allergies. The taco shells have been found in grocery stores, the Washington Post reported on Monday, Spetember 18.

The possibility that the modified corn made it into food products anyway has federal officials concerned, with several calling the development "very serious" if confirmed by further testing. Officials at the Food and Drug Administration, who called the possible presence of the biotech corn in human food "unlawful," said yesterday that the agency has already started an investigation

The type of corn, produced by Aventis Corp. is called StarLink, and was approved by federal authorities in 1998 only to be used as an animal feed. StarLink corn is the only biotech variety allowed for animals but not approved for human use, because the corn has been genetically modified in a way that makes it more difficult to break down in the human gut.

The StarLink corn is genetically modified to contain the plant pesticide Bacillus thuringienis, or Bt, which kills the destructive European corn borer. While there are many varieties of Bt corn now, StarLink is the only one that contains the Cry9C protein. That substance, which Aventis officials say provides a useful alternative to other more commonly used Bt corn varieties, is what federal officials have concluded might cause allergies in some people. Company officials have been trying to win federal approval for human use, but a special EPA science panel concluded in July that "there is no evidence to indicate that Cry9C is or is not a potential food allergen."

There is no previous history of human dietary exposure to the Cry9C protein to guide researchers.

"If there has been a violation of our licensing process, then we would have a very great concern," said Stephen Johnson, an assistant administrator for pesticides at the Environmental Protection Agency. "Likewise, we would want to make sure we are completely protecting the public health."

GEFA has asked the FDA to recall the taco shells immediately. "This corn is absolutely not supposed to be in our food, but an independent lab found it there anyway," said Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth, a member of the coalition. "This shows a major regulatory failure and raises some real human health concerns." The group said this first finding was potentially "the tip of an iceberg," and that it could be in many other products as well. Samples of taco shells from Taco Bell restaurants will also be tested soon, group members said

The taco shells in question were manufactured in Mexico for Taco Bell and were distributed by Kraft Foods Inc. Michael Mudd, Kraft's vice president for corporate affairs, said that the corn was bought by a Texas miller from farmers in six states, and that the miller had ordered a conventional form of corn.

"This is a serious issue and Kraft is doing everything we can to confirm whether or not this material is present in the product," Mudd said. "If it is confirmed, we will immediately take--in consultation with the FDA--all appropriate steps."

Biotech industry officials question the testing techniques of Genetic Id, the Iowa company that performed the testing on the taco shells for GEFA. At least once before, the company came to incorrect conclusions about the presence of genetically modified materials. Officials of Genetic Id, which does substantial testing of American products being shipped to Europe, have in the past been publicly skeptical about biotechnology. Industry officials also said that testing for the protein is "not at all simple, and it is easy to get a false positive."

So Genetic Id repeated the tests on the taco shells, according. Company policy is to duplicate each test, so the taco shell sample was actually tested four times using a process called polymerase chain reaction. Each time researchers found 1 percent of the corn DNA to be from the unapproved corn, and found the presence of other biotech material as well. Sample material used in the test still exists for further tests. Bohlen has been arguing for government testing to assure purity. "We've been saying for a long time that federal authorities should be doing this testing, but so far it's been left to groups like us," he said

The issue of food allergies caused by biotech products is a the major concern about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as food. Most concerns are about the impact of these new species on the outside environment- such as the affect of the Bt corn on monarch butterflies. This incident raises the specter of human health impacts and supports critics claims to involve the federal government in monitoring these products, as well as requiring labeling food products containing GMOs.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio,) a biotech skeptic, said discovery of the unapproved corn shows that genetically engineered ingredients are not well regulated. In a release from the GEFA, Kucinich said, "It concerns me and should concern American consumers that this is a glimpse of things to come as genetically engineered products are rushed to store shelves without real mandatory safety testing and labeling programs in place."

UPDATE: 10/5/00 Government tests concluded that the unapproved GMO corn was indeed present in the taco shells, undermining industry claims that food contaminated could not happen. Yet, efforts to require labeling for foods containing GMO porducts has yet to materialize.