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StarLink: More Bad News for Biotech

News & Analysis on Genetic Engineering,
Factory Farming, & Organics

Ronnie Cummins
Little Marais, Minnesota

Quotes of the Month:

"Agricultural biotechnology will find a supporter occupying the White House next year, regardless of which candidate wins the election in November..." Monsanto's electronic newsletter 10/06/00

"The [StarLink corn] protein, known as Cry9C and not found in other crops that are genetically modified, is safe for animals but may trigger allergic reactions in humans, including fever, rashes or diarrhea, according to government scientists." Washington Post, "Corn Woes Prompt Kellogg to Shut Down Plant" 10/21/00

"I think they ought to leave nature alone. There is a reason food grows like it does.'' A consumer, Krista Beddo, shopping in a supermarket near Monsanto's headquarters in St. Louis, Associated Press, "Concern Surfaces Over Taco Recall" 10/25/00

"U.S. grain exporters expressed relief on Friday after the government lifted export restrictions on shipments tainted with traces of an unapproved biotech corn, allowing shipments of previously banned corn to Latin America, Asia and Europe. While the Clinton administration action removes some legal liability for exporters, companies said they are still worried about losing overseas sales to other nations... Archer Daniels Midland executives said its [StarLink-tainted] corn shipments would be traveling to South America, Europe, [and] Mexico, but not to Japan. 'I think we are going to have to wait a little bit on Japan,' an ADM spokesperson stated.' " Reuters 10/27/00

The Gene Giants suffered a serious setback on September 18, when the Genetically Engineered Food Alert (GEFA) coalition revealed that an illegal, likely allergenic variety (Cry9C) of genetically engineered (GE) corn called StarLink had been detected in a major U.S. consumer food product, Kraft taco shells. The GE Food Alert Coalition, which tested the taco shells and broke the news about StarLink, is made up of seven U.S. groups, Friends of the Earth, Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network, Center for Food Safety, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, National Environmental Trust, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The StarLink scandal made headlines, generated thousands of news articles and TV clips, and brought home the realization to American consumers, that the nation's supermarkets are filled with an extensive inventory of untested, unlabeled, genetically engineered foods. In 1998 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had approved the commercial cultivation of StarLink - corn spliced with a powerful Bt toxin (bacillus thuringiensis). Developed by a subsidiary of the French-German biotech conglomerate Aventis, StarLink was approved only for animal feed because of fears that this controversial Cry9C variety (50 to100 times more potent than other Bt-spliced varieties) could set off food allergies in humans.

Critics of GE food have warned for years that splicing foreign proteins into common food products, proteins which in most cases humans have never eaten before, can set off dangerous food allergies-with symptoms ranging from fever, rashes, and diarrhea to anaphylactic shock and sudden death. The FDA admits that eight percent of all US children are now plagued by food allergies, and that the situation is growing worse. Nutritionists warn of a suspected link between food allergies and asthma. Even the staid New England Journal of Medicine warned in its March 14, 1996 issue that unlabeled genetically engineered foods are "uncertain, unpredictable, and untestable."

In 1996, a gene-altered soybean spliced with Brazil nut DNA patented by what is now Dupont's seed subsidiary, Pioneer Hi-Bred, was pulled off the market before commercialization after researchers learned that it could set off a deadly allergy in humans. Even after this near-disaster, Plant Genetic Systems, the developer of StarLink corn (PGS was later bought out by Aventis), apparently continued gene-splicing Brazil Nut DNA into rapeseed, potatoes, tobacco, beans, and peas in European field tests in the open environment. (See Plant Molecular Biology (1998) 37:829-838.)

Denials - Then Mass Recalls

The biotech industry, Kraft/Phillip Morris, and the EPA at first tried to deny the validity of the GEFA lab tests, but within days public pressure forced Kraft, the largest food corporation in America, to recall 2.5 million boxes of the corn tacos. This action was followed by a halt of sales of Cry9C seeds by Aventis on Sept. 26, and a formal recall order issued by the USDA on Oct. 9 for all 350,000 acres of StarLink corn planted across the US. GEFA then struck again and forced further recalls (Safeway corn taco shells, Mission Foods corn products, Western Family brand corn tacos) by announcing on Oct. 11 and Oct. 25 that StarLink corn had been detected in other brand-name products being sold in thousands of supermarkets. In the wake of the StarLink crisis, some of the largest US food and animal feed processors, Kellogg, ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, and Tyson, either temporarily closed their grain mills or announced mandatory testing for Cry9C corn. Meanwhile, the White House sent emergency teams to Japan and Europe, trying to reassure major US trading partners that the StarLink controversy would be kept under control.

By the end of October, consumer confidence in the safety of GE foods was severely shaken. Thousands of farmers and grain elevator operators expressed anger at Aventis and the biotech industry. The state Attorney General's office in Iowa criticized Aventis and seed dealers for not telling farmers to keep StarLink out of the human food chain. As one Iowa grain elevator operator told the Washington Post on Oct. 25, "I think we're just hitting the tip of the iceberg here. We just don't know what's in those elevators, and when we start letting this stuff go and it's tested, it's going to get worse."

StarLink Hits the Fan

Aventis, Kraft, Safeway, Mission Foods, Western Family, Shaw's, Food Lion, Randalls, Kroger, Albertson's, H.E.B., and scores of other food companies and supermarket chains (not to mention grain elevators and farmers) have begun totaling up several hundred million dollars in losses. Consumers claiming to have been poisoned by StarLink corn products filed a multi-million dollar class-action suit in Chicago. Kraft and a number of supermarket chains have voiced dissatisfaction with the lack of oversight of GE crops by US regulatory agencies.

The EPA is caught between a rock and a hard place: fending off pressure by the biotech industry to reverse itself and declare that Cry9C corn is safe for humans, and on the other hand, resisting pressure from public interest groups to take all of the nation's Bt crops-corn, cotton, potatoes, and soybeans-off the market because of their evermore obvious hazards. Meanwhile, America's overseas allies are trying to figure out what to do about the growing demand on the part of consumers in their own countries to close the door on billions of dollars of GE-tainted US agricultural imports.

The US announcement on Oct. 27 that they would let Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, ConAgra and other grain exporters ship StarLink-contaminated corn to international markets only made matters worse. In effect the grain cartel and the White House were telling America's best overseas customers: Here, take this contaminated corn. Americans are refusing to eat this stuff, Tyson Foods, the largest poultry producer in the US, won't even feed it to their chickens, but you can eat it.

The fallout and collateral damage from the StarLink scandal will likely continue. As the New York Times stated Oct. 17, Aventis may be hit with a barrage of lawsuits: "Just what farmers knew and when they knew it could end up playing a role in lawsuits growing out of the affair, according to lawyers who handle agriculture cases. Aventis and the seed companies might have a hard time fending off liability for the expenses of farmers, grain elevators, millers and food companies in sorting out the mess if they did not do enough to head off foreseeable risks that mixing would occur."

The appalling lack of US government regulation and the greed of so-called Life Science corporations to rush untested, and in this case, likely dangerous products to market have now become obvious, even in the heartland of agbiotech, the United States. Polls taken before the StarLink scandal broke showed that the majority (51% in a poll by Angus Reid) of Americans and Canadians (60% in a poll by Unilever) were already opposed to genetically engineered foods, while an overwhelming majority (80-94%) support mandatory labeling, mainly so that they can avoid buying these controversial foods. U.S. farmers, and even a number of large food corporations, have already begun cutting back on their use of GE seeds or food ingredients, as reported previously in BioDemocracy News #29 While 33% of U.S. corn acreage was GE last year, this year it fell to 19.5%. Whether or not the StarLink debacle represents a mortal blow to the first generation of GE foods and crops remains to be seen. Certainly a review of recent global developments indicates that the crisis of credibility surrounding genetically engineered foods is steadily increasing.

FDA - No Labeling, No Safety Testing

  • The U.S. government's "no labeling" and "no safety testing" policy has become a serious liability and source of controversy. The Center for Food Safety and other public interest groups filed a major lawsuit in 1998 in U.S. Federal Court to take GE foods and crops off the market. On October 2, the lawsuit was headed off by the FDA, but only by admitting in court that they actually have had no real policy in place on genetically engineered foods and crops since 1992. In effect, all so-called "regulation" up until now has been completely voluntary on the part of Monsanto, Aventis, and the rest of the biotech industry. Commenting on the Oct. 2 decision, Center for Food Safety attorney Andrew Kimbrell stated, "This court decision means that for almost a decade these novel foods have gone virtually unregulated in the United States. American consumers have been used as unknowing guinea pigs..."

  • Inside sources report that the FDA has postponed publishing new proposed regulations on genetically engineered foods, at least until after the November elections. In the aftermath of the StarLink controversy, the FDA understands that its forthcoming proposed regulations (no mandatory labeling, no mandatory safety testing, no required liability insurance) will likely set off a huge public backlash during the legally required public comment period. But federal officials and the Gene Giants are caught in a terrible bind. If they do what most of the public wants and require mandatory pre-market safety testing and labeling, leading food corporations and supermarkets will do what they are already doing in Europe and Asia, that is remove GE foods and ingredients from their brand-name products. Stores won't sell products branded with the "skull and crossbones" of the GE label, and farmers will be very reluctant to grow these crops. On the other hand if the FDA, USDA, and EPA continue to do the bidding of the biotechnology industry, they risk losing billions of dollars in U.S. export sales, not to mention the political risks of provoking the ire of U.S. consumers, who are now apparently awakening to the GE food controversy with a vengeance.

International Fallout

  • On the international front, the leading producers of genetically engineered crops, the U.S. (74% of all GE crops), Canada (10% of all GE crops), and Argentina (15%), face a similar dilemma. If they try to use the hammer of economic sanctions from the World Trade Organization to force Frankenfoods down the throats of the WTO's other 131 nation-state members, they risk provoking a trade war and possibly even a meltdown of the entire global "Free Trade" system. If they don't use the police and enforcement power of the WTO, however, more and more countries are going to make it harder and harder for untested and unlabeled GE products to get into their countries. For example:

  • Europe, which has not approved a new GE crop since April 1998, told the US on Oct. 11 according to the Bureau of National Affairs journal, "that the only way the European Union's de facto moratorium on new GM (genetically modified) seeds is likely to be lifted is for U.S. farmers to be required to segregate genetically modified crops from those grown from traditional seeds..."

  • Meanwhile new human health fears over antibiotic resistance genes in GE cattle feeds are prompting Europe's leading food producers and supermarket chains to ban GE animal feeds in their meat and dairy production. Recently a government advisory board in Britain, the Advisory Committee on Animal Feeding Stuffs, admitted that antibiotic resistant marker genes found in genetically engineered foods and animal feeds may be able to transfer antibiotic resistance to the bacteria in animals' guts, giving rise to dangerous pathogens in humans that can't be killed by traditional antibiotics. German scientists earlier this year-in a story widely reported across Europe-found that antibiotic resistant genes from GE rapeseed plants were combining with bacteria in the stomachs and intestines of bees. BBC reported on Oct. 6 that the UK's major grocery chains, Iceland, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer's, and Asda are all removing GE ingredients from animal feed. A recent UK poll commissioned by Friends of the Earth found 63% of British shoppers wanting supermarkets to drop GM ingredients from animal feeds. As reported in BioDemocracy News #29, the European Commission and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations are now both calling for mandatory labeling of animal feeds, a move that analysts predict will all but kill non-segregated, GE-tainted US grain exports to Europe and Asia.

Cargill Segregating

  • Cargill, the world's largest grain company, announced in September that they are expanding their contract production and marketing of non-genetically engineered corn, and will strictly segregate these varieties at their processing plants in Paris, Illinois, Indianapolis, Indiana, and Liverpool, England. As Cropchoice News reported Sept. 29, "Cargill's latest parlay into non-GMO comes at time when it and other big grain processors continue to downplay the demand for non-biotech grain. But like ADM and ConAgra, Cargill is making moves into the non-GMO market even as they suggest it is unimportant." Cargill's shift reaffirms the conclusion of a recent study carried out by professor David Bullock at the University of Illinois which found that U.S. grain handlers can efficiently and economically segregate GE and non-GE grain varieties by simply designating specific grain elevators, grain processing plants, and transportation facilities as either GE or non-GE.

  • Government officials in Taiwan announced Oct. 17 that they will follow the lead of other Asian and Pacific countries and require mandatory labeling of food with genetically engineered ingredients. According to officials, labeling requirements will come into force in 2001-with similar measures being implemented in South Korea and Japan. Taiwan is a major importer of U.S. grains, importing over 4.5 million metric tons of corn last year. According to Cropchoice News, "The government's decision is in response to intense pressure and follows publication of a Gallup poll in which 74% of Taiwanese said they expected the government to require labels on GMO food." According to Reuters news agency, Uni-Food Enterprises, Taiwan's largest food company, reacted to the news by promising to comply with the labeling requirements and move toward using non-genetically engineered ingredients. Uni-Food Enterprises, with $2.6 billion in annual sales, produces animal feeds, dairy products, frozen foods, instant noodles, and soft drinks.

Japan Says No Thanks

  • According to an Associated Press story Oct. 25, Japanese authorities have warned the United States not to export StarLink corn to Japan. Government officials were embarrassed after a public interest group, the Consumers Union of Japan, announced in Tokyo that it had found traces of corn in snack foods sold in Japanese stores as well as in imported animal feed. StarLink corn is prohibited in both human and animal feed in Japan. An earlier AP story on Oct. 24 reported that an entire 55,000 ton shipload of US corn destined for Japan was rejected after testing positive for StarLink, "sending shock waves through importers in Japan as well as other Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan." According to the AP "Japan imports about 60 percent of its food, much of it from the United States. In 1999, Japan imported 15.9 million tons of corn from the United States, including 10.8 million tons for animal feed, the Foreign Ministry said. The remaining 5.1 million tons were for food, mostly for corn starch." Korea imports about eight million tons of corn per year from the US. The Consumers Union of Japan and allied consumer groups in South Korea are calling for a moratorium on the importation of all GE foods into their countries. In a recent poll 82% of Japanese consumers said they were opposed to genetically engineered food-the highest level of resistance in the world.

  • Worried officials from the U.S. Grains Council and the National Corn Growers Association, two major agribusiness trade association groups, rushed to Tokyo in late September to outline industry plans to channel StarLink into "approved markets" and keep it out of shipments to Japan. The White House also dispatched a trade delegation to Europe. According to, an "emergency meeting" took place in Washington on Oct. 6 with agribusiness representatives meeting with high officials from the Clinton and Gore administration. A National Corn Growers Association official expressed the hope at this meeting that Japan would soon approve StarLink for animal feed, but after the recent developments in Japan, this scenario appears unlikely.

Latin Fallout

  • The StarLink scandal has spread into Mexico and Latin America as well, with TV coverage by networks such as Telemundo, Univision, and CNN. According to Reuters, Mexico Greenpeace protesters on Oct. 11 "wearing white overalls and mime-like white masks entered an upscale Mexico City supermarket and boldly labeled mainstream corn flour products that contain genetically modified corn with stickers bearing a giant "X," for "X-perimental." Corn flour is the main ingredient in tortillas, Mexico's most important food product. Greenpeace also announced in October that 450 tortilla factories across Mexico will use only locally produced (non-GE) corn in their products. Mexico is the world center of biodiversity for corn, with 25,000 varieties found in the country. Environmentalists warn that pollen and "genetic pollution" from genetically engineered corn plants could cause irreparable harm to Mexico's native corn varieties. Mexico is also the winter home for Monarch butterflies, who migrate south from Canada and the United States. An important study at Cornell University in 1999 found that the pollen from Bt corn kills Monarch butterflies.

  • According to a report posted by UK geneticist Mae-Wan Ho on the internet Oct. 18, Argentina, the second largest producer of genetically engineered crops in the world after the United States, "is having second thoughts as the world market [for GE soybeans and corn] collapses. This was the message conveyed by both the Environment Minister Ruben Dario Patrouilleauz, who headed the Argentinean delegation to the Biosafety Protocol Conference in Montreal, and the Director General of Cultural Affairs, Raul Alfredo Estrado Oyuela. Both spoke at a special Parliamentary debate on agricultural biotechnology in La Plata, Federal Province of Buenos Aires, on Sept. 26." Monsanto has been very successful thus far in getting 84% of Argentina's soybean farmers to plant GE (Roundup Ready) soybeans. This may soon change however as EU markets for Argentina's processed oils and animal feed begin to close down, and as EU and Asian markets for Brazilian soybeans (where GE soya is illegal) continue to rapidly expand.

Scientific Warning

  • On the scientific front, the StarLink controversy has shined the spotlight once again on the hazards of Bt-spliced crops in general, not just the Cry9C variety. In dramatic testimony presented to the EPA Oct. 20, a highly regarded international expert, Dr. Michael Hansen of the Consumers Union, pointed out that: (1) The EPA has ignored an EPA-funded study that shows that Bt toxins have induced signs of allergenicity in agricultural field workers, as well as an additional study indicating allergenicity in lab rats; (2) the EPA has failed to require tests of all Bt crops for allergenicity using the blood serum and chemical reagents from these earlier studies-even though these tests could be done quickly with little expense; (3) the EPA have failed to carry out adequate safety tests for StarLink or any of the other Bt crops which they have approved; (4) government "acute toxicity" protocols are based on the erroneous scientific assumption that Bt toxins generated by gene-spliced plants in the field are identical to Bt toxins produced by bacteria in the laboratory; and (5) the government continues to downplay the potential hazards of antibiotic resistant marker (ARM) genes-found in Bt crops and all genetically engineered foods-even though recent studies underline that ARM genes have the ability to transfer antibiotic resistance to soil bacteria, bees, mammals, and other organisms, including humans. As Hansen reminded the EPA in May 1999, the British Medical Association, which represents some 85% of the doctors in Britain, released a report calling, in part, for a prohibition on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in genetically engineered plants. For Dr. Hansen's full testimony see:

As Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth stated in a press release Oct. 20, "The EPA should not allow Bt corn to be planted next year unless they can assure mill workers, farmers and rural residents that they will not develop allergies and respiratory problems. Farmers could be affected and not even know the reason why due to the EPA's failure to test for health impacts."

  • In a related scientific development, researchers at the University of Minnesota have found that Bt corn does indeed pose a major hazard to Monarch butterflies, since Monarchs are found in concentrated numbers in and around milkweed plants in cornfields throughout the corn growing season. Researchers were surprised to find, according to an Oct. 25 article in the Los Angeles Times, "just as many" Monarchs were breeding and feeding within cornfields as in nonagricultural sites. In other words millions of Monarch butterflies throughout the Midwest corn belt are feeding on their only food source, milkweed plants, just at the same time that Bt corn plants are shedding their toxic pollen, pollen which lab and field tests have conclusively shown are poisonous to the butterflies. The biotech industry has worked overtime in the past year trying to maintain that Bt pollen poses insignificant risks to Monarch butterflies. Besides the Bt threat, scientists have warned that Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, sprayed on GE soybeans and other crops, kills off the Monarch caterpillar's sole food source, the milkweed plant.

Critics have pointed out that not only is Bt killing Monarchs, but that it is also killing beneficial soil microorganisms and thereby damaging the entire soil food web; as well as killing beneficial insects such as lacewings and ladybugs. Scientists also warn that bees and birds are likely being harmed by eating insects that have ingested the Bt toxin. In addition, organic farmers, 2/3 of whom in the United States use a non-genetically engineered form of Bt spray as an emergency pest management tool, have pointed out that crop pests (beetles, boll worms, corn borers) will inevitably develop resistance to widely cultivated Bt-spliced crops, creating superpests that will overwhelm organic farmers and make organic agriculture more difficult, if not impossible. For all of these reasons, Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, and a broad coalition of public interest groups-including the Organic Consumers Association-are preparing litigation to have all genetically engineered Bt crops taken off the market.

  • Finally, on another scientific note, even the pro-biotech New Scientist magazine Oct. 7 (UK) pointed out what has now become painfully obvious: if biotech companies and the FDA are unable to keep an unapproved variety like StarLink out of the human food chain and contained in restricted farm plots, what are they going to do once the next generation of bio-pharm plants begin to be commercialized, plants containing vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs, crops that could harm and poison unsuspecting consumers? As the magazine concluded, "We can't ignore the taco fiasco... Why was it left to Friends of the Earth to commission the tests that found StarLink in taco shells? The food industry needs to get its act together before the new generation of modified plants arrives. Next time, the consequences could be serious."

For the moment the proponents of the Biotech Century seem to have survived the latest storm. Unlike the FDA's last recall of a genetically engineered product, the nutritional supplement l-Tryptophan, in 1989, which left in its wake 37 deaths and 5,000 injuries, there are no dead bodies of StarLink victims visible on the TV news, but the Frankenfoods controversy continues to grow. The question seems to be no longer, if there will be a biotech Chernobyl, but only when. Stayed tuned to BioDemocracy News and the OCA website for further developments.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 29, 2000.

Ronnie Cummins.
Originally published by Ronnie Cummins in the Internet publication BioDemocracy News. Republished with permission.

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