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Bio-Corn Tainted 430 Million Bushels, Its Maker Says

REUTERS

More than 430 million bushels of corn in storage nationwide have been contaminated with an unapproved biotech variety that caused a huge recall of chips, flour and other foods, a senior executive of corn maker Aventis said Sunday.

That figure greatly increases the estimate of the amount of U.S. corn inadvertently mixed with StarLink, a variety prohibited from human foods.

The Washington Post is reporting in its editions today that the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have begun to investigate possible human allergic reactions to the engineered corn. The agencies are probing several dozen cases involving consumers who complained of various symptoms after eating StarLink corn last fall.

The genetically modified protein in StarLink corn, called Cry9C, was barred by U.S. regulators for human use because of concerns it might cause allergic reactions such as skin rashes, runny noses and flu-like symptoms.

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Aventis, in its most detailed accounting of the StarLink contamination to date, also said Sunday that it was urging the federal government to establish a tolerance level that would permit a small amount of the bio-corn to occur in large shipments.

“At the elevator level, we have already rerouted 94 million bushels of corn commingled with StarLink corn and know of an additional 343 million bushels in storage that will be rerouted in the months to come,” said John Wichtrich, general manager for Aventis CropScience, a unit of the Franco-German pharmaceutical company.

Wichtrich made his remarks in a San Antonio speech to a meeting of the North American Millers Assn., which represents companies that grind wheat and corn into flour. A copy of the speech was made available by Aventis.

The 430-million-bushel estimate dwarfs the amount of corn reported earlier from the 2000 crop as containing StarLink: about 50 million bushels grown by farmers licensed to use it and 20 million bushels from neighboring fields.

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“Most of this commingled corn apparently originated with the 1999 crop,” Wichtrich said in the speech.

Wichtrich said 99% of the 2000 StarLink corn has been identified and routed to animal feed or ethanol use.

The discovery of the corn in taco shells in September triggered a recall of more than 300 products, including snack chips and cornmeal.

The contamination occurred when farmers and grain elevators mixed StarLink with other corn varieties.

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Farmers in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska have sued Aventis, claiming that the contaminated corn cost them export business and pulled down the overall price of U.S. corn. Japan, the biggest buyer of U.S. corn, virtually halted its purchases for weeks and continues to test shipments to detect contamination.

Wichtrich said Aventis already had spent “tens of millions of dollars” to resolve the StarLink contamination.

StarLink, engineered to repel pests that feed on young corn plants, was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998 only for animal feed.

Aventis, which maintains StarLink is safe for human food, said it wants the EPA to approve a tolerance level for the bio-corn. That move would allow a set amount of StarLink or its Cry9C protein to exist in corn intended for human food.

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“I know you are wondering, ‘Will there ever be an end to this?’ ” Wichtrich said. “Unfortunately, as of right now, the answer is ‘no.’ There will never be an end as long as there is a zero tolerance for Cry9C in food.”

Current government-testing procedures say the detection of one kernel of StarLink corn or its Cry9C protein in a testing sample of 2,400 kernels is enough to reject an entire rail car of corn for human food use.

Last autumn, Aventis asked the EPA to grant a four-year approval of StarLink for human food. That is the time needed for corn ingredients to work their way through food-manufacturing plants, grocery stores and home pantries, Aventis said.

The EPA has yet to rule on the request. An independent science panel urged the agency in December to conduct more tests and to investigate two dozen instances in which consumers claimed they had allergic reactions to food with StarLink.

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Aventis said it expected the government to soon publish a broad rule saying the DNA of biotech foods--which would include the Cry9C protein--do not need to be regulated.

“We have been told by the [U.S. Department of Agriculture], FDA and EPA that a rule will soon be issued exempting DNA from the need for a tolerance,” Wichtrich said. The rule is being reviewed by the Bush administration.


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