Corn scare proves baseless

Published September 1, 2001

Government researchers have released test results showing that last year’s media scare involving genetically modified corn was unwarranted.

On June 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study showing that StarLink, a variety of corn engineered to contain a protein that protects corn crops from insects, produced absolutely no adverse effects after briefly entering a variety of human foods.

The federal government had approved StarLink for domestic livestock consumption, but had yet to approve it for human consumption at the time it inadvertently entered human foods. Before approving StarLink for human consumption, the government wanted to be sure that a certain slow-dissolving protein in StarLink would not cause an allergic reaction in allergy-sensitive consumers.

Last October, a group opposed to bio-improvement of human foods reported that StarLink was present in numerous human food products. As a result, Aventis CropScience, the maker of StarLink, faced numerous lawsuits and was forced to spend millions of dollars to buy back products made with StarLink.

After the media gave heavy coverage to the report of StarLink in human foods, 51 people reported to the Food and Drug Administration they had gotten ill after eating foods containing StarLink. Of those 51, only 28 showed symptoms of an allergic reaction. Of those 28, 17 agreed to submit blood samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine if StarLink was to blame.

Although CDC researchers confirmed that all 17 people had indeed suffered some type of allergic reaction, they nevertheless discovered proof that StarLink was not to blame. None of the 17 had developed antibodies to StarLink’s Cry9C protein, which would have occurred had StarLink caused the reaction. Therefore, CDC concluded not a single person nationwide had demonstrated any allergic reaction to StarLink.

“We found no evidence in any of the samples of hypersensitivity to the Cry9C protein,” concluded CDC epidemiologist Dr. Carol Rubin.

Biotechnology scientists were not surprised by the CDC testing results. “Testing the blood of persons who complained of allergic reactions to StarLink was a fool’s errand from the beginning,” stated Dr. Henry Miller, senior research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. “We need to remember that these people were eating foods comprised of literally millions of proteins, many of which are known to be allergenic.” A person eating a taco shell made with StarLink would be far more likely to have an allergic reaction to the natural proteins in any of the taco’s ingredients than to have an allergic reaction to the StarLink in the shell.

“Concerns about allergic reactions to biotech foods are simply a diversionary tactic to scare consumers away from biotechnology,” added Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“All of our experience to date, without exception, confirms the safety and the value of genetically modified foods,” agreed Val Giddings, vice president of food and agriculture with the Biotechnology Industry Organization.