December 2, 2003
Contaminated Grain StarLink Still Detected in US' Corn
Three years after a genetically engineered corn banned from human consumption turned up in taco shells and was pulled from the market, contaminated grain is still showing up in the United States' corn supply.
A federal testing program found traces of the banished grain, called StarLink, in more than 1% of samples submitted by growers and grain handlers in the past 12 months, government records show.
The corn variety, engineered to produce its own pesticide, was supposed to be limited to animal feed and industrial use out of fear it might cause severe allergic reactions.
While the health effects of StarLink are still unsettled, many worry that the government remains unprepared to deal with unexpected health problems from genetically engineered crops, especially those now being field-tested to mass-produce medicines, vaccines or industrial chemicals.
It is still unclear how StarLink became mixed with the vast stream of corn headed for human consumption. Some growers may have sold their corn without identifying it as StarLink. Because corn kernels move in and out of grain elevators and shipping containers fluidly, even small amounts can contaminate large stores of grain.
As the continued StarLink contamination shows, it is very difficult to eliminate all traces of any type of grain once it has been mixed in with others.
"It's hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube," says Iowa Assistant Attorney General Steve Moline, who helped negotiate a 17-state settlement with StarLink producer Aventis CropScience.
"The StarLink lesson is that contamination is to some extent irreversible," said Doreen Stabinsky, a scientific adviser to Greenpeace and a genetics specialist.
"Years later, you could still see it turning up in the food supply and the grain supply."
But the biotech industry regards StarLink as a unique case. Despite dozens of claims from individuals who say they suffered allergic reactions after eating corn products, officials say the contamination caused no proven health effects. And they say this kind of contamination is not likely to be repeated with other genetically engineered plants.
"It's been a non-trivial black eye, a self-inflicted wound we didn't need," said Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade and lobbying group. But "not only don't we have dead bodies, we don't have headaches or a single sniffle."
When StarLink seed was approved for planting in 1998, the manufacturer, a division of the company now called Aventis, agreed to have growers sign contracts requiring them to keep the grain out of the human food supply.
But in September 2000, a coalition of environmental groups announced that they had found StarLink residues in taco shells, chips and muffin mixes pulled from supermarket shelves.
"The response to StarLink in the human food supply was swift - to make sure more of it didn't get there and anything out there didn't reach consumers," recalled William Jordan, a senior policy adviser for the Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide programs.
The company lost its approval to sell the seed but was not fined. "If you don't pass your driver's test, you don't get a fine - you don't get a driver's license," Jordan said.
Food manufacturers pulled their products from supermarket shelves and Aventis agreed to buy up the StarLink crop and track down any seeds still unplanted. In a settlement with attorneys general in 17 corn-growing states, the company agreed to reimburse farmers and grain handlers for their losses.
This year, Aventis agreed to pay $110 million to settle claims from corn growers who did not grow StarLink but were hurt by the declining market for U.S. corn because of the contamination.
Aventis, a French drug company that sold off its crop seed subsidiary, will not comment on how much it has spent on the StarLink recall and its aftermath. Neil E. Harl, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, estimates that the company has paid out more than $500 million to farmers, food processors and grain handlers.
Over the past three years, the amount of StarLink detected by the U.S. Agriculture Department's voluntary testing program has dropped steadily; this goes the same for the number of samples tested.
In the first year after the corn was withdrawn from the market, USDA reported 8.6% of samples tested were positive for the Starlink protein that acts like a pesticide. The contaminated proportion had dropped to 1.2% in the 12 months ending September 30.
"We don't believe that it reflects the overall corn supply," said John B. Pitchford, director of international affairs for the USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, which runs the testing program. "We think our data is skewed on the high side."
However, growers and grain handlers are free to conduct their own tests without revealing their results to the government.
Following federal guidelines, the mills that process corn and other grains for cereal and other dry products test every load of corn brought to their facilities for StarLink. About one out of every thousand samples tested postive this year - down from one out of a hundred two years ago, said Jim Bair, vice president of the North American Millers' Association.
Bair complains that the test for StarLink is so sensitive that it can detect as little as five parts per billion in a contaminated sample, an amount that is vanishingly small. That's one one-thousandth of the Food and Drug Adminstration standard for a peanut protein known to cause serious, sometimes deadly allergic reactions.
Bair and others, however, are troubled by an incident last year, when ProdiGene, a Texas biotech company, was found to have contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans with corn engineered to produce an experimental pig vaccine. The company paid a $250,000 fine and agreed to reimburse the Department of Agriculture for the $3 million cost of destroying the contaminated soybeans.
Officials with the Biotechnology Industry Organization say the incident proved that the regulatory system works and that unlike StarLink, these non-food test crops are grown on smaller acreage and are carefully monitored by regulators.
But Iowa State's Harl worries that the way farmers store, ship and handle grain makes it difficult to keep such contaminants out of the food supply.
And he adds, "If there is a significant, serious health problem with one of these, this becomes a serious public health issue."