WASHINGTON -- The government won't allow trace amounts of the genetically altered StarLink corn in food, agreeing with scientific advisers who say the biotech crop has not been proven safe for human consumption.
Discovery of the corn in taco shells last fall spawned nationwide recalls of food products and embarrassed the biotechnology industry. Developer Aventis CropScience withdrew the corn from the market but asked the Environmental Protection Agency to allow a small amount in food in order to avoid further recalls.
"The science we have before us now indicates that it's not possible to establish a tolerance" or maximum safe level for StarLink, Steve Johnson, an assistant EPA administrator, said Friday.
By the time Aventis does the additional studies and analysis that the panel of scientists recommended, virtually no StarLink will be left in the corn supply anyway, Johnson said.
The scientists reported Friday that they believe there is a chance that the corn is an allergen, but there is a low risk that consumers would eat enough corn to develop an allergy to it.
The panel said it could not determine a maximum safe level of the corn "where there would be a reasonable scientific certainty that exposure would not be harmful to public health."
The scientists urged mandatory testing of grain and a wider search for people who may have had allergic reactions to the biotech corn. EPA rejected those recommendations as impractical or unnecessary. Grain processors are now testing for StarLink on a voluntary basis.
Aventis issued a statement saying it would "fulfill it's commitment" to ensure that StarLink corn does not get into food and is instead diverted to feed or industrial use, the only purposes for which it was approved by EPA. The company did not say whether it would renew its request for tolerance.
"The potential for a problem, which was always very small, is growing smaller on a daily basis," said Val Giddings, a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
StarLink is one of several varieties of biotech corn that contain a bacterium gene that allows the plant to make its own pesticide.
Unlike the others, StarLink was never approved for human consumption because of questions about whether a special protein it contained, known as Cry9C, was an allergen. The protein breaks down relatively slowly in the digestive system, an indication that it could cause allergic reactions in some people.
Aventis wanted EPA to set a maximum level for Cry9C in food of 20 parts per billion. That's the equivalent of one StarLink kernel in 800 kernels of corn.
EPA says the levels of StarLink in the U.S. corn supply ranges from 0.34 to 8 parts per billion, depending on the method used to make the estimate.
The Agriculture Department says it has accounted for all but 720,000 of the 128 million bushels of StarLink corn grown last year. Another 4.9 million bushels may have been mixed with grain that went to food processors.
In June, 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.
However, the scientists questioned the reliability of the test that was used and said the government should be contacting doctors to look for possible allergy cases related to StarLink. The search for such cases needs to continue for two years, the report said.
"The public would benefit from assurance of the safety of the food supply," the scientists said.
On the Net:
Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/scipoly/sap/whatsnew.htm
Aventis CropScience: http://www.us.cropscience.aventis.com/