While the panel did not conclude the modified corn causes allergies, it said that months of study by federal agencies "do not eliminate the possibility of such a reaction."
Based on the panel's recommendations, the EPA yesterday announced that it would continue its policy against permitting even trace amounts of StarLink in foods -- turning down a request to change that position from Aventis CropSciences, which developed the corn.
The unapproved presence of Starlink has required hundreds of food recalls and costly international trade problems, and food industry officials said yesterday they were disappointed in the EPA's refusal. But critics of biotechnology said they were pleased by the decision, which they said vindicated their concerns about the potential risks of some genetically modified products.
Stephen Johnson, of the EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, said the agency had no choice but to turn down the Aventis application. "Some of the world's leading experts on allergenicity and food safety told us there was not enough data to conclude with reasonable certainty that there was an acceptable level of [StarLink corn] that people could eat," he said. "That leaves us no room" to allow StarLink.
The EPA approved StarLink as animal feed in 1998, but did not allow it for human use because of concerns that it contained a protein that broke down slowly and could cause dangerous allergic reactions. A public interest group found StarLink's genetically modified protein in taco shells last fall, and it has been at the center of the often contentious international debate over crop biotechnology ever since.
Johnson said the agency was studying how it might respond to the panel's recommendation that it expand its study of possible allergic reactions to StarLink. The panel said the federal government should ask specialists to report suspicious reactions to corn -- which is not a common cause of allergic reactions -- and should expand research into the entire field of genetically improved crops and food allergies.
In addition, the panel said that "every attempt" should be made to further test two people who reported severe reactions and who have offered to undergo skin testing and to eat StarLink products under medical supervision.
One of the two, Florida optometrist Keith Finger, told the panel that he sought out StarLink corn after his initial reaction last fall, and had received some anonymously in the mail. After running a test that showed it was in fact StarLink, he ate some and went to a local hospital several hours later with itchy rashes over his body and fast-rising blood pressure.
During two days of testimony in mid-July, Food and Drug Administration officials said that blood tests on 17 people who reported possible allergic reactions to StarLink, including Finger, did not show any signs of an actual physical reaction.
But the expert panelists raised questions about the validity of the testing process and the size of the sample. They said that the tests decreased the probability that people had suffered allergic reactions to StarLink, but did not rule it out.
Johnson said yesterday it "would require many months or years of continued scientific evaluation to answer the question of allergenicity."
An Aventis official said that the company was not surprised by the panel conclusions and the EPA decision. She also said that there is no way to conclusively determine if the Cry9C protein in StarLink -- which protects the corn against the European corn borer -- can cause allergic reactions.
In a statement, the company emphasized its commitment to directing all corn with the StarLink Cry9C protein to livestock and industrial uses. "We will continue to support the grain handlers and millers with their testing programs," the company said. "We are proud of the progress we have made in containing StarLink corn."
In its report, the expert panel concluded that the amount of StarLink in the food supply was significantly less than predicted in the fall, and that there is a "low probability of allergenicity" in the population based on levels of StarLink in the U.S. diet. Aventis has been buying back StarLink corn, and corn commingled with StarLink, and virtually all is expected to be out of the food supply after the fall harvest.
During the panel meeting, officials from the Agriculture Department reported the agency will spend between $13 million and $17 million to also buy back seed for growing corn that had been contaminated with StarLink.
The modified corn, which was planted on only 320,000 acres last year but has spread well beyond that, has created problems for U.S. corn exporters because some foreign buyers avoided all U.S. corn. The grain and food industries have supported the Aventis request for allowing trace amounts of the corn, saying low levels of many genetically modifed proteins can be found in virtually all corn.
"The food industry is disappointed by the EPA decision today on StarLink," said Gene Grabowski of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "It means continued uncertainty and anxiety in the food market . . . and eventually will result in price increases. It's a situation that should not be allowed to continue."
But Bill Freese of Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, said the panel report "shows that the EPA and FDA need to begin more seriously regulating genetically engineered foods to protect public health."
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Last Updated on 7/28/01