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Scientific panel rules biotech corn needs more research
CNN -- A U.S panel of scientists has ruled that a variety of gene-altered corn found in the nation's food channels offers a "low probability" of triggering allergic reactions in humans.
That's because food processing for items like corn snacks or taco shells breaks down a suspect protein in StarLink corn that's been linked to human allergies, said the 15-member advisory board to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Also, there is so little StarLink in the food supply that consumers are unlikely to have enough time to develop sensitivities to it. "We simply do not know what characteristics of a protein make it an allergen," the panel said in its report, now posted on the EPA's Web site.
The report means EPA and other experts will research StarLink further to determine whether the corn was the cause of health problems that have been reported to the Food and Drug Administration or whether those who made the complaints were simply influenced by media reports of possible allergic reactions. A federal report or recommendation on the consumer complaints could be made in the coming weeks or months, said EPA spokesman Dave Deegan.
StarLink corn has already been withdrawn from the market after its discovery in the food supply in September spawned nationwide recalls of taco shells and sent ripples through the U.S. corn export market. The genetically modified corn, or GM crop, was approved only for animal feed or industrial use, but not for human consumption.
After the news broke, the EPA was asked by StarLink's maker, Aventis SA, to grant temporary food-use approval for the corn to prevent further recalls and to bolster confidence in the nation's grain handling network. That temporary approval will be withheld until more research is done, regulators said.
"EPA will continue its evaluation of the scientific information, and develop the appropriate regulatory approach in response to the StarLink situation to ensure protection of public health and continued consumer confidence in the safety and integrity of the food supply," said Stephen Johnson, EPA's deputy assistant administrator.
Scientists believe, but don't know for sure, that the ability of a protein to withstand breaking down amid the stomach's gastric juices is an indicator that it will cause an allergic reaction. Peanuts, which can cause fatal allergic reactions, have that characteristic, as do other foods known to be allergy inducing.
StarLink was designed to be toxic to crop pests and contains a special protein, called Cry9C, which some suspect could take longer than normal to break down in the human digestive system. If so, there's a chance that stubborn bits of Cry9C might hang around in a person's stomach long enough to be recognized as an allergen.
But those risks remain unproven, the EPA panel ruled, partly because the science of allergenicity has yet to catch up with biotech advances. Aventis' crop science unit, based in Research Park, North Carolina, has continued to insist that StarLink is not an allergen.
This week's report wraps up EPA's 30-day public comment period on StarLink, which included a one-day meeting at a Washington-area hotel where dozens of people got a chance to speak to the EPA panel on their support or concerns about StarLink's safety.
So far, some 35 people have contacted the government this fall with health complaints that they thought might be caused by StarLink. But the Department of Agriculture, along with experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, is still working to determine the validity of those claims.
In general, the EPA panel did say the Cry9C protein expresses a "high to medium probability" that it shares characteristics with allergy-inducing proteins but that too little of the genetically modified component actually made its way to the nation's grocery store shelves.
Critics have contended, though, with the allergenicity issue aside, regulators should be fearful that a product such as StarLink ever made it's way into food channels.
A group of farmers filed suit against Aventis last week in Illinois federal court, claiming the company failed to warn growers adequately of restrictions on use of the corn. Farmers have said they were unaware that StarLink -- grown on about 0.4 percent of the nation's corn acreage this year -- could not be sold for food use.
Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said the food industry wants EPA to make "an expeditious and appropriate" decision on StarLink "so that consumers can be once again assured that the food supply is safe."
Expert: StarLink biotech corn a test case for regulatory needs
Environmental Protection Agency
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