- A top Aventis CropScience executive said Sunday that
the food supply will never be rid of the new strain of corn that the company
genetically engineered at Research Triangle Park.
- The executive, John Wichtrich, called for a change in
federal regulations to allow some level of the engineered corn, known as
StarLink, in human food.
- The product is now approved only for animal feed and
industrial products such as ethanol.
- But the environmental watchdog who first discovered the
new corn in food objected sharply. "Aventis broke the promise of biotechnology,"
said Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth in Washington, D.C. "They
were supposed to improve the quality of our food, not cause so many problems
and introduce so much risk."
- Wichtrich, general manager of Aventis in RTP, apologized
for the debacle Sunday in a speech to the North American Millers Association
in San Antonio. Wichtrich said that 437 million additional bushels of StarLink
have been found in storage, which is much more than previously thought.
About 50 million bushels of StarLink corn were grown under license during
2000, and Starlink was inadvertently mixed into another 20 million bushels.
- Last fall, Bohlen discovered StarLink corn in Kraft taco
shells at a Maryland grocery store. The discovery led to a recall of almost
300 food products. Now, Wichtrich said, "no matter how diligent our
collective efforts are, we can never get to, or guarantee, 'zero.' "
Because the StarLink corn can never be cleaned out of the U.S. food supply,
Wichtrich said, Aventis wants the Environmental Protection Agency to change
- The EPA now has a "zero-tolerance" policy,
meaning it views any amount of the StarLink corn in the U.S. food supply
as a violation. One kernel of StarLink corn in a sample of 2,400 kernels
would cause a load of corn to be rejected, Wichtrich said. EPA should give
Aventis an exception or revise its policy to tolerate a certain level of
StarLink in food, he said. But Bohlen said "Aventis is asking the
government to legalize genetic pollution."
- Until the Centers for Disease Control finishes its study,
no one will know whether the StarLink corn causes allergic reactions, he
said. CDC is investigating the claims of 44 people who said they got sick
after eating corn products, he said.
- Wichtrich said only dry-milled corn products -- those
made from corn meal, grits and flour -- are in danger of being contaminated.
Wet milling, which produces corn syrup and oil, kills the protein, he said.
Aventis, which employs 550 people at its North America headquarters in
RTP, has taken hundreds of angry phone calls from farmers, grain elevator
managers and food processors. Aventis has 87 people working on rerouting
the corn, and another group of scientists looking into the allergy question,
- The company has spent tens of millions of dollars to
fix the problem, he said. It has rerouted 28,135 trucks, 15,005 rail cars
and 285 barges, he said. Aventis has said that 384 of the more than 340,000
acres of StarLink corn are in North Carolina. Wichtrich also said Aventis
still plans to spin off Aventis CropScience as a separate company in summer
or early fall. Bohlen said EPA's answer to Aventis' plea for new rules
will shape national policy on allowing genetically engineered crops into
the food we eat. "This," he said, "is a pivotal moment in
the history of biotechnology."
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