Anatomy of a Gene Spill: Do We Really Need Genetically Engineered Food?

Peter Rosset | 10.01.2000

Food First Backgrounder, Fall 2000, Vol. 6, No. 4

Kraft Foods announced a nationwide recall of taco shells yesterday after confirming that they contained a genetically engineered corn not approved for human consumption. The recall covers Taco Bell Home Originals Packages… Kraft, a subsidiary of Phillip Morris… [sells] the Taco bell product line… under license from the Taco Bell restaurant chain, a unit of Tricon Global Restaurants. Kraft bought the shells from Sabritas, a subsidiary of PepsiCo. The flour came from a mill owned by Azteca Milling. Azteca is controlled by Gruma S.A. of Mexico, the world’s largest tortilla producer, but is partly owned by Archer Daniels Midland, the giant Illinois grain processor. The corn in question, known as Starlink [was] developed by Aventis CropScience. Aventis CropScience S.A. unite[s] the crop protection business of Rhone-Poulenc with the crop protection activities of Hoechst Schering AgrEvo.

-The New York Times, September 23 and 30, 2000, and www.aventis.com

On Monday, September 18, 2000, a coalition of biotech critics announced laboratory tests detecting the presence of genetically engineered (GE) corn, of a variety not approved for human consumption, in Taco Bell brand taco shells. The StarLink corn variety in question produces a bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insecticide protein called Cry9C, a potential human food allergen because it is not broken down by the digestive process. Later the same day, Aventis CropScience, the biotech giant which produces StarLink seeds, responded by challenging the credibility of Genetic ID, the independent laboratory which had found the illicit presence of the variety. On September 22 Kraft announced a recall of the taco shells, and on September 29 the USDA and the EPA jointly announced that Aventis, at their ‘urging,’ had agreed to buy back the entire year’s harvest of Star Link corn from embattled farmers.

On October 2 the FDA belatedly revealed that its own laboratories had confirmed the results of Genetic ID’s disputed tests, announcing that it would now begin test a few other processed food products for the first time. It wasn’t long before the original testers found traces of StarLink elsewhere, notably in Safeway brand taco shells, and more product recalls followed. As many as 350 flour mills around the country have apparently received shipments of this GE corn variety, and there are doubts as to how careful they have all been in terms of keeping it out of the human food supply.

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