Corn company unable to locate some unapproved grain

Friday, October 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The company that developed a variety of gene-altered corn linked to a nationwide recall of taco shells is trying to recover 9 million bushels of the grain that may be headed to food companies.

The corn, known as StarLink, was not approved for human consumption because of questions about its potential to cause allergic reactions. Federal officials describe the health risk as remote; Starlink is approved only for animal food or industrial uses.

``We're doing everything we can that's humanly possible to try to track that corn down,'' Aventis CropScience spokesman Rick Rountree said Thursday.

The missing grain represents about 10 percent of this year's crop of the corn.

Mills nationwide are starting to test incoming corn and unshipped flour for signs of Starlink, said Betsy Faga, president of the North American Millers Association. She was unaware of any positive tests.

Archer Daniels Midland Co., a leading grain handler and processor, began testing deliveries at its elevators a week ago and has turned away ``a handful of trucks out of hundreds,'' said company spokesman Larry Cunningham.

ConAgra Foods Inc., one of the nation's biggest food makers, stopped making corn flour at a mill in Kansas on Oct. 11 because it may have received some of the StarLink.

The corn found in taco shells was traced to a single mill in Texas.

Most of the seed for the corn was sold by an Iowa-based company, Garst Seed, and 40 percent of it was planted in the state, the Des Moines Register reported Friday.

This means huge problems for Iowa's more than 150 grain elevators. They're bulging with freshly harvested corn, but so far it's not clear how much of it may have been commingled with StarLink.

``The vast majority of this corn is controlled,'' Agriculture Department spokeswoman Susan McAvoy said. ``We're working with Aventis and vigorously attempting to locate the remainder.''

Aventis has canceled its government license to market the crop and agreed to reimburse the Agriculture Department for the cost of buying up all of this year's harvest.

Aventis' inability to find all of the corn leaves food processors up in the air, said Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. ``Everyone understands that consumer sensitivity on this issue is highly important even if there is no evidence of harm,'' he said.

Among the corn products in grocery stores are taco shells, corn chips, and breakfast cereals.

Aventis was required by the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure that farmers did not sell the corn for food use. Company officials now acknowledge some farmers either were not told of the restriction or forgot about it.

Farmers did not buy the seed directly from Aventis but from seed companies that sold it under license from Aventis, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Rountree said there was a ``breakdown in communications'' between the farmers, Aventis and the seed companies.

About 2,000 farmers this year grew StarLink, which is expected to account for about 0.4 percent of the nation's total corn harvest.

Each of the growers was contacted by the company and given the option of selling the corn to the government or keeping it on their farm. The grain that has been sold is being tracked through the elevator that purchased it.

``You have a lot of guys who are so mad they don't want to deal with USDA or Aventis, and they don't know what they're going to do about those farmers,'' said Tom Jennings, an official in the Illinois Agriculture Department.

Iowa's attorney general, Tom Miller, said he is trying to get Aventis to reimburse farmers who lost money on grain that was mixed with the StarLink corn.

StarLink is one of several varieties of corn that contains a bacterium gene that makes it toxic to insect pests.