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Public Pressure Prevents EPA from Approving StarLink Corn in US Food

Public Pressure Prevents EPA from Approving
StarLink Corn in US Food

Friday July 27, 2:31 pm Eastern Time
US science panel rejects StarLink in human food
By Julie Vorman

WASHINGTON, July 27 (Reuters) - A science advisory panel on Friday
urged the Environmental Protection Agency to maintain its ban on StarLink
biotech corn in human food, saying too many questions remain about whether
the gene-spliced corn can cause rashes, breathing problems or other allergic
reactions.

StarLink, originated by the European drug giant Aventis SA, caused a
massive U.S. food recall last autumn when traces of the bio-corn were
discovered in taco shells.

The vast U.S. corn supply was accidentally contaminated when farmers,
shippers and grain handlers mixed small amounts of StarLink with other
varieties of yellow corn.

The EPA asked a panel of 16 physicians and independent scientists to
evaluate if a ``tolerance level'' -- or maximum allowable amount of StarLink
-- could be established for StarLink in human food.

The agency approved StarLink in 1998 for livestock feed and ethanol, but
banned it in human food because of uncertainties about health effects. At
issue is StarLink's unique Cry9C protein, which protects the growing plant
from pests.

STARLINK A POTENTIAL ALLERGEN

The science panel concluded in its 40-page report that ``no evidence has
been presented that demonstrates StarLink Cry9C's protein allergenic
potential is diminished.''

It also reaffirmed an earlier finding that the gene-spliced corn has a
``medium likelihood'' of being a human allergen.

The panel's recommendation to the EPA is a setback for Aventis, which faces
several lawsuits and is trying to sell its agricultural division.

The scientists, led by University of Florida toxicologist Stephen Roberts,
questioned the reliability of laboratory tests used by the Food and Drug
Administration and the Centers for Disease Control. The panel expressed
concern about the FDA's use of an alternate form of Cry9C protein in its
testing, rather than the authentic Starlink-produced Cry9C protein.

The CDC tested blood samples of 17 consumers who claimed to have allergic
reactions to StarLink from food products. All 17 tested negative.

Other safety tests should be conducted with farmers and grain mill workers
to identify any allergic reactions, the scientists recommended. And private
physicians specializing in allergies and immunology should be alerted to
report food reactions to the government for further investigation.

MOST STARLINK GONE

The panel also noted that virtually all StarLink corn would be gone from the
U.S. corn supply by 2002 because of aggressive efforts by the U.S.
Agriculture Department and Aventis to remove StarLink from the market.

Major food makers have also begun testing their corn supplies for StarLink
contamination.

The wet-milling corn process used by food makers for corn-based snack foods
and flours diminishes StarLink's Cry9C protein and risk to public health,
the panel said.

The EPA, which will consider the panel's recommendations before issuing a
final decision, said the new report showed there was little risk to the
public from StarLink.

``This supports the agency's determination that there is no public health
risk from eating products manufactured from StarLink corn through the
wet-milling process, provided that corn utilized in the wet-milling process
does not contain significant levels of StarLink,'' the EPA said in a
statement.

EPA TO MAKE FINAL DECISION

The scientific review of StarLink was prompted after Aventis asked the EPA
to set a tolerance level of 20 parts per billion for StarLink in processed
food.

Aventis contends StarLink poses no risk of allergic reactions and is safe to
eat.

``Aventis will fulfill its commitments to continue direct Cry9C-containing
corn to approved feed and nonfood industrial uses,'' the company said in a
statement. ``We will continue to support the grain handlers and millers with
their testing programs.''

The EPA, which typically follows the advice of its science advisory panels,
did not say how soon it would issue a decision on Aventis' request.

``EPA sincerely appreciates the high level of scientific expertise this
panel has provided on this important issue,'' Stephen Johnson, EPA assistant
administrator, said in a statement.

``Bringing the best science to the table, and evaluating it in a transparent
manner is fundamental as we continue the important work of ensuring
protection of public health and maintaining consumer confidence in the
integrity of the food supply,'' Johnson added.

The panel's recommendation was a victory for environmental groups, which
have urged regulators to go slow with biotech food approvals until more
research is done.

They cited the case of a Florida optometrist who documented with photographs
his skin rash after eating corn chips containing a small amount of StarLink.

``The passive allergy reporting measures that the EPA and FDA have enlisted
to date have been insufficient,'' said the Genetically Engineered Food
Alert, a coalition of green and consumer groups. ``American consumers have
the right to know what they are eating and that the food they are eating is
safe.''

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