EPA says little unapproved corn left in food supply

Tuesday, July 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The chances of consumers eating an unapproved variety of biotech corn are substantially less than the government thought last fall after the grain was discovered in food products, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

In a report to a panel of scientific advisers who meet Tuesday and Wednesday, EPA said testing by corn processors and seed companies have helped to dramatically reduce the amount of StarLink corn that could be in food.

``We are in a very different place to where we were in November and December,'' Janet Anderson, a senior EPA official, told the scientists Tuesday.

Discovery of the corn in taco shells last fall led to nationwide recalls of corn products. More recalls may be necessary unless the EPA agrees to allow a minimal amounts of the corn in food, the corn's developer, Aventis CropScience, has said.

EPA's scientific advisers are deciding whether the agency should grant a request by Aventis to set a maximum level for the biotech grain of 20 parts per billion of the food likely to be consumed by a particular individual. That's the equivalent of one StarLink kernel in every 800 kernels of corn.

In its report, EPA says the actual levels of StarLink in U.S. corn supplies range from 0.34 to 8 parts per billion, depending on the method used to make the estimate. EPA says the corn ``will essentially be gone'' from grain supplies in two to three years.

In a preliminary assessment last fall, EPA said so little of the corn had intruded in the food supply that the risk of encountering it ranges from ``parts per billion to parts per trillion'' of food consumed by people most likely to eat it.

StarLink corn was never approved for human consumption because of questions about whether it was an allergen.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cleared StarLink as the cause of allergic reactions in 17 people who thought they may have been sickened by the corn.

A special protein in the corn, called Cry9C, breaks down slowly in the digestive system, an indication that it might induce allergic reactions. However, scientists say people would have to be exposed to the protein repeatedly to become sensitive to it.

StarLink, which has been removed from the market, is one of several varieties of corn that have been genetically engineered to produce their own pesticides. StarLink corn was supposed to have been grown and handled separately from other grain, but farmers often failed to do so.

The Agriculture Department reported Tuesday that it had accounted for all but 720,000 of the 128 million bushels of StarLink corn.