Testing Finds No Link Between Gene-Modified Corn, Illnesses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Government health officials said Wednesday they were unable to find any evidence that StarLink corn caused an allergic reaction in people who reported illness after eating food containing the genetically modified corn.

StarLink was approved only for use in animal feed, but accidentally got into the human food supply last year, causing the recall of hundreds of products from corn chips to taco shells.

Fifty-one people who ate the corn reported illness to the Food and Drug Administration. But only about 28 of those had the symptoms of an allergic reaction. And of those, only 17 agreed to submit blood samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so they could be tested for antibodies to the controversial Cry9C protein in the plant, which repels pests and was suspected of being an allergen.

Although CDC researchers found that those 17 people were indeed made sick, it wasn't the corn that caused the reaction. "We found no evidence in any of the samples of hypersensitivity to the Cry9C protein," said Dr. Carol Rubin, a CDC epidemiologist.

That's good news for Aventis CropScience, the maker of the controversial corn, which has faced lawsuits and had to pay millions to buy its product back since its recall last year. Aventis executives declined comment.

Biotechnology industry leaders say the report confirms what they've said all along: StarLink and other genetically modified crops are safe for human consumption. "All of our experience to date, without exception, confirms the safety and the value of genetically modified foods," said Val Giddings, vice president of food and agriculture with the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

However, environmentalists and other activists say the sample was too small to prove the safety of StarLink conclusively. And they worried that the small sampling included too few children, who are more likely to develop food allergies.

"Test results from such a small sample could easily have missed allergic reactions," said Bill Freese of Friends of the Earth. "A thorough investigation is exactly what the public deserves." That, they say, includes a much larger round of testing.

"While it is certainly good news that no reaction was seen, it is in no way definitive evidence that StarLink is not an allergen," said Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist at Environmental Defense.

Goldburg and others are worried that the test results could influence the Environmental Protection Agency when it decides this summer whether StarLink is fit for human consumption.

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