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Contaminated Corn

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StarLink is a genetically engineered corn only approved for animal feed

StarLink is a genetically engineered corn only approved for animal feed. The corn was engineered with Cry9C, a protein toxic to insects, so that insect pests who eat the plant die.

What happens when humans eat the corn? Initial research indicates that StarLink does not easily break down in the human gut and can cause allergic or anaphylactic reactions. Therefore, the corn was only approved for animal feed until further research could be done.

However, in September 2000, the unapproved corn was detected in taco shells distributed throughout the USA by Kraft (a subsidiary of Philip Morris) under the name Taco Bell. Alarm bells went off across the USA.

Trying to contain the disaster, Kraft recalled millions of packages of its taco shells from across the United States. Next, the US' largest manufacturer of tortilla products, Safeway (Mission brand), had to recall products that showed traces of StarLink.

As evidence of the contamination spread, nearly 300 food products in USA were recalled, including more than 70 types of taco chips, over 80 taco shells, and nearly 100 foods served in restaurants and large food chains nationwide.

Plants Shut Down

ConAgra Foods Inc, one of the US' biggest food markers, temporarily shut down its corn milling operation in Kansas, due to contamination. Kellogg's suspended oper- ations at its manufacturing plant in Memphis, Tennessee.

Efforts to trace the unapproved corn showed that millions of bushels of StarLink had been delivered to more than 350 grain elevators across the USA. About 9 million bushels of StarLink, or about 10 percent of the season's crop, were lost in the system and could not be accounted for.

Aventis, the manufacturer of StarLink, was blamed for not advising farmers to segregate StarLink, which was only approved for animal feed, from the other corn. While StarLink represented only one percent of Iowa's corn acreage, because the corn was not segregated, about half of the two billion bushels of corn in Iowa was contaminated.

Japanese importers found traces of StarLink in a cargo of US corn and rejected the 55,000-ton cargo. Korea recalled 14,528 kilograms of tortillas contaminated by StarLink. The US was losing overseas markets.

Some US feed operations, including Tyson Foods, the world's largest poultry producer, refused StarLink.

Pressure for Approval

Mexico and South America were targeted as export markets for the corn. In the meantime, Aventis pressured the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to quickly approve StarLink for national marketing, at least temporarily. The FDA would not comply. Research in Holland had just come out, showing that rats fed StarLink began producing antibodies to the gentically engineered corn, indicating possible internal damage and that more research was needed.

Aventis estimated its cost for cleaning up the mess in the USA and recalling StarLink corn at many hundreds of millions of dollars. They forecast it would be below one billion dollars.

Where was Canada while the crisis was going on? American manufacturers confirmed that products containing StarLink corn were shipped to Canadian distributors. Some Canadian outlets were apparently told by US manufacturers that they were sent contaminated products. However, it is unclear which, if any, products were recalled, as any recall was voluntary.

In the US, the FDA released a list of the 300 contaminated products, and consumers were able to return products for a full refund. In Canada, no such lists are available and consumers have been pretty much in the dark.

However, we heard that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) just sent in 50 foods from Canadian stores for testing to see if they contain StarLink. One might wonder why CFIA regulators are about two months behind the USA in responding to this serious contamination incident, especially when it has been heavily covered by the US press.

For further information on biotechnology and its hazards, see concentric.net/~Rwolfson/home.html.

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