Questions Abound About Biotech Corn

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government is being asked to temporarily approve a variety of gene-altered corn for human consumption despite unresolved questions about whether it could provoke allergic reactions in people.

The corn, approved only for animal feed or industrial uses, has been showing up in the food supply, forcing recalls of taco shells and shutting down some processing plants.

The corn's developer, Aventis CropScience of Research Triangle Park, N.C., has submitted new data to the government that the company says show the risk to people is extremely remote.

Here, in question-and-answer form, is a look at the issue:

Q: Could this corn, known as StarLink, make someone sick?

A: The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency say the health risk from the corn, if any, is low. Food allergies are a serious matter; reactions to peanuts can be fatal. Scientists advising the EPA, which regulates this corn, have been unable to decide whether it was an allergen.

Q: What is it about the corn that suggests it might cause allergic reactions?

A: The corn contains a special protein, Cry9C, that breaks down relatively slowly in the digestive system. Scientists think, but aren't sure yet, that the ability of a protein to withstand heat and gastric juices is an indicator that it will cause allergic reactions. Peanuts have that characteristic, and so do other foods known to be allergy inducing. Other factors not fully understood by scientists cause people to react to food, such as repeated exposure to it.

Q: Does food made with gene-altered corn look or taste different?

A: No. It takes complex scientific testing to tell whether food has genetically engineered ingredients. Several varieties of biotech corn and soybeans are approved for food use and are found in processed products throughout stores.

Q: Does EPA have the authority to approve StarLink temporarily for human consumption?

A: EPA officials say unequivocally yes, as long as they are convinced it is safe. They plan to seek public comment and seek advice from outside scientists before making a decision, which is expected to take several weeks.

Q: So far the only foods that have been recalled because of StarLink were taco shells? Do other products contain the grain?

A: Maybe. You may have eaten the corn in your breakfast cereal or in other products, like snack chips. No one knows how much altered corn has gotten into the food supply, although relatively little of it is grown. The corn that was found in taco shells came from last year's harvest. The Agriculture Department said Thursday that 1.2 million bushels of this year's StarLink crop hasn't been accounted for. Another 3.6 million bushels got mixed with other corn but is being held at grain elevators. Most of the corn is still on the farm and going toward approved uses. The FDA has been testing various corn products but so far has found it only in taco shells recalled by Kraft Foods.

Q: Is it now evident that the industry took insufficient precautions?

A: Aventis CropScience, which developed the corn, was required by EPA to act to ensure the corn didn't get into the food supply. The company admits that some of the 3,000 farmers may not have been told about restrictions on the corn's use.

Q: How do the whistle-blowers learn that the gene-altered corn is or may have been put into food products?

A: A coalition of anti-biotech groups called the Genetically Engineered Food Alert submitted the taco shells and other corn products to a testing firm in Iowa and asked them to see if they contained the grain.

Q: Does this corn have bacteria in it?

A: It contains the gene of a common soil bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis that makes the plant toxic to caterpillars. People eat bacteria, both dead and alive, in and on their food all the time.

Q: What does this problem say about the regulatory system?

A. Both the industry and anti-biotech groups say the discovery of StarLink in food has exposed flaws in the system. The industry says the government should not allow farmers to grow a biotech crop like corn unless it is approved for food use. It also has become evident that many farmers don't keep track of what they are growing well enough to keep crops separate that should not be mixed. Biotech opponents say that FDA and EPA would have caught this problem had they been more vigilant.


On the Net: EPA:


Genetically Engineered Food Alert:

Biotechnology Industry Organization:

Special Aventis site: