Time for EPA to clean up StarLink mess

Published February 1, 2002

The controversial StarLink bioengineered corn, which found its way into the human food supply even though it was approved only for animal feed, is on its way out, and good riddance. But an important question remains: Will StarLink take farmers and food processors with it?

The Environmental Protection Agency, which messed up big time in granting a feed-only approval, now has enough data to give human foods containing Starlink legal status. If the agency would approve trace levels in human food, farmers could sell their grain without worrying about whether it contained traces of StarLink. Food companies would not have to issue recalls every time some activist group tested a taco chip for unapproved proteins, and the whole country could move on.

A science advisory panel has told EPA it does not have enough evidence to say with certainty whether low levels of StarLink could cause allergies. But we know enough already to say that low levels of StarLink pose little risk to human health.

By contrast, we know that traces of unapproved StarLink pose a major risk to farmers’ markets and food processors’ businesses. It’s time to grant a tolerance for trace levels in corn products until all StarLink can be cleared out of the system.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that no one reporting allergic reactions to StarLink corn showed evidence of such a reaction in his or her blood. There was good reason for that–none of the food samples the people blamed for their allergic reactions showed any presence of StarLink. In fact, for all the headlines, activist positioning, product recalls, and loss of markets, no illness has been linked to StarLink after nearly a year. Now that StarLink has been pulled from the market, levels in food will only decrease until all traces are gone.

Multi-million dollar fiasco

It all started in September 2000, when a consumer group tested some taco shells and found a small amount of protein from StarLink corn, developed to ward off insects without the use of chemical insecticides. However, because StarLink was not immediately broken down in digestion studies the way non-allergenic proteins are, EPA wanted more data before approving it for human food uses.

Some of the grain that should have been segregated for animal food got mixed with other grain, and StarLink protein ended up in tacos and many other corn products.

Some of the country’s leading allergy experts went on record saying there was very little risk StarLink would cause any harm. They explained people develop allergies only after continued exposure to relatively high levels of allergy-causing proteins. Given the very low levels of StarLink in processed foods, there was little chance of people developing the antigens that lead to allergic reactions. Studies have shown the StarLink protein did not resemble known allergens, so it probably isn’t an allergen anyway.

All of that was good reason to maintain calm when the story broke.

Of course, that’s not what happened. The entire food-scare playbook was used, from alleged victims to press conferences to headlines to recalls to embargoes. A multimillion-dollar fiasco ensued.

But who gets the blame?

Enough blame to go around

It starts with EPA and Aventis, the developer of StarLink. Both were native to believe all the StarLink corn would go for animal feed uses. By proceeding with the half-registration of StarLink, they risked undermining public confidence in the regulatory system while increasing public concern over biotechnology.

Anti-biotechnology groups saw an opportunity and exploited it. They implied the regulatory system was broken. They willingly overstated the possible risk of low-level exposure to the StarLink protein and looked for additional products with traces of StarLink.

The news media played the StarLink story for its full headline value. Most abandoned their responsibility to fully explain the science and provide perspective on risk.

And now scientists may refuse to let common sense put this issue to rest. There is no evidence StarLink causes allergies, but scientists want the impossible: They want to see proof it won’t.

The only good to come from this fiasco is that the biotech industry and EPA learned a very painful lesson, and both have sworn off split registrations. So we can be assured no more biotech crops will be approved without full food clearance. That will strengthen an already rigorous regulatory process.

EPA ought to thank the advisory panel for its time, weigh the risks to health and commerce, and then make the right decision. It is time to clean up the mess EPA and Aventis caused–not to forgive Aventis for its foul-up, but to get this phony food scare off the backs of farmers and food processors so we can get on with our business.

David Erickson produces corn and soybeans on his farm near Altona, Illinois. He is past president and past chairman of the board of the American Soybean Association.