State Journal-Register

Jan 13, 2001

Durbin: Ban split-use Bt foodstuffs


WASHINGTON -- Sen. Dick Durbin Friday proposed a ban on split-use biotech foods such as the controversial StarLink corn, which was approved for animal consumption only but has been found in taco shells and other human food products.

His proposal comes in response to a 13-page letter he received from three federal agencies - the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture - that reveals additional instances of the unapproved biotech corn being found in the human food supply.

Among the disclosures the Springfield Democrat said he found most troubling were:

A small number of seed stock produced by Garst Seed Co. in Iowa was contaminated by StarLink in the 2000 growing season. Previously, only a 1998 seed was thought to be contaminated.

FDA testing has found the StarLink protein in corn meal product sold to the brewing industry.

The EPA failed to notify the USDA when it detected the StarLink protein in a lab study of conventional corn two years ago. Agriculture officials only learned of it when Durbin wrote late last year asking about it.

If they had been notified, they might have been more aware of how difficult it would be to keep StarLink corn segregated in the real world of grain silos and the rush to harvest, Durbin said.

These examples are in addition to the discoveries by environmental groups that led to the recall of taco shells and other products.

"It makes no sense to have grain out there that animals can eat but not humans," Durbin said. "The collection, storage and distribution systems are not built to segregate them, and the potential for problems is too great. Split-use foods put all farmers and consumers at risk, and once their products are contaminated, the damage can't be undone."

StarLink, which is engineered with a gene to protect crops from pests, was approved by the EPA only for animal feed and non-food industrial uses because of concern that it might cause an allergic reaction in some people.

A panel of scientists told the EPA last month that there is "medium likelihood" the unapproved variety of biotech corn will cause allergic reactions and urged further study of the crop.

However, since so little of the corn is in the food supply, they said there is a "low probability" that consumers could have developed allergies to it.

A Durbin aide stressed that the senator is not opposed to genetically modified crops that have been approved for human use.

Aventis CropScience, the developer of StarLink corn, has withdrawn the product from the market. The EPA is considering its request for retroactive approval for human use.

Given the controversy, the agency would be unlikely to approve future products for animal, but not human, consumption, EPA officials have said.

Illinois farmers planted about 17,000 acres of StarLink corn out of about 10 million acres statewide.