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Should you fear franken-corn?
What the experts say about StarLink and allergens
(CNN) -- Concerns about human allergic reaction to StarLink, a brand of genetically altered corn, have challenged government and health officials struggling to understand why the unapproved variety has made its way into the nation's food supply.
The issue, which is the focus of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-led probe, has also caught the attention of anti-biotech groups and emerged as the number-one thorn in the biotech industry's side. The EPA expects to announce by early December its findings on potential allergens in StarLink.
But meanwhile, the question remains: Could StarLink actually make people sick?
Ricki Helm, an immunologist and allergy expert at the Arkansas Children's Hospital, said there is little proof StarLink has become a danger to humans. For one thing, it would take repeated exposure to the genetically modified corn to trigger a reaction.
"I don't think StarLink has been on the market long enough to be a problem to people," Helm said.
The EPA approved StarLink only for animal feeds or industrial use -- but not for human consumption -- because the agency couldn't rule out the possibility that some humans would be allergic to it.
A protein problem
Scientists believe, but don't know for sure, that the ability of a protein to withstand breaking down in the stomach's gastric juices is an indicator that it will cause an allergic reaction. Peanuts, which can cause fatal allergic reactions, have that characteristic, and so do other foods known to be allergy inducing.
StarLink was designed to be toxic to crop pests and contains a special protein, called Cry9C, which some suspect could take longer than normal to break down in the human digestive system. If so, then there's a chance that stubborn bits of Cry9C might hang around in a person's stomach long enough to be recognized as an allergen.
But those risks remain unproven, Helm said, partly because the science of allergology has yet to catch up with biotech advances. "We don't know how any protein can be sensitive to a human, whether it be bee venom or peanuts," he said. Biotech corn is among those unknowns.
Hoping to clear up those concerns, the EPA on November 1 launched a 30-day public comment period on StarLink. The agency also plans to have a one-day meeting with scientists, which will also be open to the public, on November 28.
Helm, who serves on an EPA panel gathering data on food allergies, is also participating in international meetings focusing on the issue.
Other experts say humans' reactions to StarLink aren't nearly as troubling as the fact it made its way to the nation's food supply. U.S. officials and other agencies have leveled harsh criticism at the corn's developer, Aventis SA of France, for not keeping StarLink away from human food channels.
Is your cereal StarLink-free?
Aventis no longer sells StarLink and is buying it back from farmers who planted it. But the company's crop science unit, based in Research Park, North Carolina, has already submitted new safety information recommending that the EPA grant temporary approval to use StarLink in human food.
The new information "concludes that the Cry9C protein and DNA for StarLink in the corn fall within the 'reasonable certainty of no harm' standard," said a statement issued by the company. EPA said it would consider Aventis' findings and wrap up its own probe before ruling on the request -- all of which could take several weeks.
Meanwhile, federal regulators and Aventis are still trying to locate about 1.2 million bushels of the 80 million bushels of StarLink planted for the 2000 season. The corn spawned a nationwide recall of taco shells in September after anti-biotech groups found StarLink in tests of taco shells. That corn came from last year's crop and was traced to a mill run by Mission Foods of Irving, Texas, Helm said.
The missing corn could be included in processing for such foods as corn snacks and breakfast cereals.
The Agriculture Department on October 25 dispatched a team to Japan to investigate a consumer group's claim to have found StarLink in snacks sold there. The same week, federal regulators lifted the prohibition on exporting the genetically modified corn -- as long as exporters monitor that StarLink is intended for non-food purposes.
StarLink is among several types of corn, cotton and potatoes that scientists have engineered to contain a bacterium gene -- known as Bt for short -- which makes them pest-resistant. Bt-based crop sprays, for instance, have been around for several years after the EPA ruled Bt did not produce any known allergic reactions.
StarLink's special genetic blueprint also causes it to express the Cry9C protein, which is at the center of the safety debate.
But the Cry9C protein makes up only 0.0013 percent of corn grain, said Martin Chapman, a professor of medicine and microbiology at the University of Virginia Medical School. That's too small a percentage for concern since most allergenic proteins account for more than 10 percent of the food product in which they appear, he said.
A call for government action
U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials have received complaints from people who said they had allergic reactions after eating StarLink-made foods. But the agency, which is getting help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, has yet to confirm the modified corn brand caused anyone harm.
A coalition of environmental and consumer groups has criticized the government for not being tough enough on biotech food. Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Consumers Union and Friends of the Earth are among those who have written President Clinton warning that unregulated gene-altered corn portends a "widespread contamination of the food supply."
In Europe, the backlash against GM food (short for genetically modified) has reached the fervor once reserved for nuclear power plants. Some grocery stores and restaurants proclaim themselves "GM free" and protestors trample fields of test plantings while warning of "Frankenfoods."
Earlier this year, an independent British committee advising the government on modified crops issued a report detailing how biotech companies could boost safety and avoid the potential pitfalls of human allergenicity. One suggestion: if foreign proteins are expressed in the parts of plants not harvested for food, like leaves or stalks, there will be little chance of them making people sick.
Experts said the safety and regulation of biotech food is guaranteed to spur more debate. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has singled out the Cry9C protein as needing special attention and the World Health Organization will sponsor an allergenicity conference on genetically modified foods during January in Rome, Italy.
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