Continuing reports that unapproved bioengineered grain has seeped into the food supply worldwide is raising serious questions about whether governments can keep genetically modified and unmodified crops separate.
Corn not approved for human consumption was first found in taco shells and other food products in the United States. As recently as yesterday, governments including Britain and Japan were still investigating similar complaints in their countries.
The discoveries have embarrassed government regulators, tarnished the reputation of the struggling farm-biotech industry, and set off a mad scramble to begin testing food and grain across the globe.
The US faces the biggest risk because its grain is at the center of the spreading controversy. Unless regulators and grain handlers can better guarantee the purity of American grain, the nation could see key farm exports shrink and US consumer confidence rattled.
Although the actual risk from the corn found in US taco shells, called StarLink, appears small - possible allergic reactions, federal officials say - the implications are huge. Perhaps the most troubling aspect is that federal regulators missed it completely.
"The StarLink program did point out a hole in our system," says Charles Hurburgh, professor of agricultural engineering at Iowa State University in Ames. "We may have to rethink our process."
Without the efforts of a small group of activists called the Genetically Engineered Food Alert Campaign, the corn's spread to human food would never have come to light. The group tested food including Taco Bell taco shells for StarLink.
"Much to our surprise we actually found the stuff," says Matt Rand, the campaign's co-coordinator.
StarLink next showed up in Safeway's own brand of taco shells, leading to it being pulled from store shelves. In mid-October, Mission Foods, the nation's largest manufacturer of tortilla products, recalled its tortillas, taco shells, and snack chips from grocery stores and restaurants, as well.
Then late last month, a consumer group in Japan found StarLink in a corn flour baking mix - a claim reportedly confirmed yesterday by Japanese officials. A British environmental group has also reported finding other types of unapproved genetically modified corn in local tortilla chips. Supermarkets there are investigating.
It turns out that seed for the corn, which is limited only to nonfood uses such as feeding livestock, was apparently sold without warning labels. Moreover, not all producers had signed contracts that prohibited them from using the corn for human food products.
As a result, the company that licenses the StarLink technology, Aventis CropScience, is paying farmers an extra 25 cents a bushel to get back this year's crop. The move marks the first-ever recall of a genetically modified crop in the US. So far, 90 percent of it has been contained, the company says.
Since the US problem is limited to StarLink, which represents only 0.5 percent of the nation's corn crop, some grain-industry officials claim the flap represents an anomaly. Others, however, counter that it is concrete evidence of what can go wrong.
"The self-policing system that we have now doesn't work," says Richard Caplan, environmental advocate for US Public Interest Research Group, an environmental and consumer watchdog group in Washington. "What we need in fact is a far more comprehensive strengthening of the system."
Some rules are already in place. According to Aventis's rules, StarLink corn isn't supposed to be grown within 660 feet of other crops destined to be human food. But if farmers ignored that rule, their StarLink corn may have pollinated the nearby crop of a neighbor, who unwittingly could have sold it anywhere.
That raises a troubling question: If regulators didn't want StarLink in food products, why didn't they require testing?
One major reason is that the grain-handling industry can't handle it currently. Set up to process huge amounts of commodities, the system only genetically tests niche products, such as popcorn and soybeans destined for tofu, whose high value covers the expense of testing. Large-scale testing of low-value commodities would swamp the system - both because of cost and time.
"Ten minutes is a rapid test, but it's not harvest rapid," says Jeff Adkisson, executive vice president of the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois in Springfield.
During the peak of harvest, testing every load of grain coming to an average-size elevator in the Midwest would take as many as 50 extra man-hours a day, industry experts say, slowing deliveries and raising costs.
In any case, the increased scrutiny is pushing the grain-handling industry to move away from its one-size-fits-all approach. "We have to have a specialty-grain infrastructure as well as a commodity-market infrastructure," says Professor Hurburgh.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society