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Expert: StarLink biotech corn a test case for regulatory needs
(CNN) -- While talking to government-appointed scientists about the largest biotech food fight in U.S. history, environmental researcher Rebecca Goldburg was encouraged that dozens of people standing in the room were very serious. The Environmental Protection Agency-led panel was, after all, weighing the health risks of StarLink corn and whether it should be kept from the world's grocery store shelves.
"We all consider it a very important issue," Goldburg said of the meeting at a hotel near Washington on Tuesday. "And one of the primary things that will have to be dealt with is whether companies can inadvertently add new genetic components to foods they produce."
Goldburg is a senior scientist at Environmental Defense, a New York-based nonprofit group that champions the scientific, economic and legal aspects of environmental protection. She was among the more than 200 people attending the meeting and who view the issue as a divining rod of biotech policy.
Concerns about StarLink have intensified, causing a senior Agriculture Department official to announce Thursday that corn exports to other countries had dropped directly because buyers and other governments are worried about biotech corn. "It is having an impact," Tim Galvin, of the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service.
South Korea and Japan are among those who have held off buying some U.S. corn shipments that might be tainted with StarLink.
The EPA has not approved the gene-altered corn for human use, partly because of unanswered questions about its safety in foods. Not enough scientific evidence is available about a special gene inserted into StarLink crops that allows them to produce their own internal "biopesticide," which reduces farmers' reliance on sprayed chemicals.
StarLink can be used only in animal feed or other industrial uses, the EPA ruled in 1998, because there is uncertainty over whether it can trigger allergic reactions in humans. Regulators at Tuesday's meeting also said they were looking into claims that some 35 people in the United States were made sick after eating food that contained StarLink.
Tuesday's meeting, which was open to the public, represents the near culmination of the EPA's 30-day public comment period on StarLink, launched November 1. The EPA said sometime after Thursday, possibly within days, it would issue a ruling on StarLink maker Aventis SA's request for temporary approval to use the corn in human food.
Aventis' crop science unit, based in Research Park, North Carolina, sticks by its claim that StarLink meets "the 'reasonable certainty of no harm' safety standard as defined by the Food Quality Protection Act," said company biotech expert Sally Van Wert. The whole biotech corn scare started when traces of StarLink were discovered in taco shells bought from a Maryland grocery store in September and has since spawned nationwide recalls of some 300 kinds of corn snacks, yellow corn shells and cornmeal.
No one seems to know for sure how the corn made its way into the products, but Kraft Foods has determined the StarLink variety had been grown during the 1999 season and milled at a plant in Plainview, Texas. Officials at the plant said they have no idea where the unapproved corn came from and Peter Pitts, of Mission Foods, the country's largest producer of tortilla products, said his company also doesn't have any clear answers about StarLink contamination.
To make things worse, Garst Seed, an Iowa-based company, recently announced that one of its corn hybrids contained the StarLink gene - even though it wasn't supposed to. "No one's really clear how that happened," researcher Goldburg said. The company is still investigating how the mix-up occurred - it might have had something to do with how bags of certain kinds of corn were organized for shipment.
Earlier, though, on September 26, Aventis had already suspended sales of StarLink technology to seed companies licensed to create the corn.
Aventis and the USDA continue to buy back as much of the autumn StarLink harvest as possible to prevent it from tainting the food supply. Experts believe about a million bushels are still out there - somewhere.
Goldburg is among those who hope the issue forces regulators to put a better system in place to monitor all genetically modified foods, known as GM foods. She and representatives of the Union of Concerned Scientists hope for a "reasonable affirmation of safety" on rules about biotech foods. "Now we have a (StarLink) protein with characteristics associated with allergenicity," Goldburg said. "But there are already about 45 GM foods and there will be many more to come. We desperately need a science-based peer review program."
Experts: worries about biotech corn are overblown
USDA Agricultural Biotechnology
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