Taco shells with genetically-engineered corn recalled

The Associated Press
Saturday October 14, 2000

WASHINGTON – A type of genetically engineered corn that is not approved for food use was withdrawn from the market at the government’s urging Thursday after the crop showed up in additional brands of taco shells. 

The Environmental Protection Agency said Aventis CropScience agreed to cancel its license to sell the corn, known as StarLink. It is only allowed for use in animal feed because of unresolved questions about whether it can cause allergies in humans. 

The health risks from the corn, “if any, are extremely low,” the EPA said in a statement. But because “Aventis was responsible for ensuring that StarLink corn only be used in animal feed, and that responsibility clearly was not met, today’s action was necessary,” the agency said. 

Safeway Inc. removed taco shells from its stores Wednesday night after learning of test results that showed they may contain the biotech corn. Kraft Foods issued a nationwide recall Sept. 22 of taco shells it sells under the Taco Bell brand name after similar tests confirmed the presence of the corn. 

Aventis already had suspended sales of the seed for next year’s crop and agreed to reimburse the government for purchasing all of this year’s harvest. 

The corn contains a bacterium gene that makes it toxic to some insects. All such pest-resistant crops must be licensed by EPA before farmers are allowed to grow them. StarLink is one of the least used varieties of biotech corn and the only one not allowed in food. 

The corn flour used in the Kraft and Safeway taco shells came from the same company, Azteca Milling of Irving, Texas, a joint partnership of Archer Daniels Midland Co. of Decatur, Ill., and Gruma S.A. of Monterrey, Mexico. 

Azteca is investigating the incidents and has implemented testing procedures to prevent the biotech corn from reaching its mills, said company spokeswoman Sarah Wright. 

Safeway’s action applied to shells sold under both its private label and under the name of Mission Foods, a Gruma subsidiary also based in Irving. Customers who purchased the shells are being offered refunds. Safeway said it had been assured by Mission Foods, which made the taco shells, that the corn was not in its products. 

Mission Foods, which also supplies taco shells to other supermarket chains, said in a statement that it is testing its products for the StarLink corn. Kraft’s taco shells were made in Mexico by Sabritas Mexicali, a unit of PepsiCo Inc. 

Safeway, based in Pleasanton, Calif., has 1,400 stores in the United States, primarily in the West. 

The Food and Drug Administration has been testing a variety of corn products for StarLink, but agency spokeswoman Ruth Welch declined to say whether the agency had found the corn in any foods other than the Kraft taco shells. 

“We’re doing a full investigation working with all parties involved in this issue,” she said. 

The StarLink corn was grown on about 300,000 acres this year nationwide, or about 0.4 percent of the total U.S. corn acreage. The Agriculture Department is buying up all of this year’s crop and then selling it for feed and other non-food uses. USDA estimates the action will cost Aventis as much as $100 million. 

The StarLink corn has become an embarrassment to the biotech industry, and food manufacturers have been meeting almost daily with government officials to deal with the issue. “We want to make sure that everything is done on the part of the government to reassure consumers that the food supply is safe,” said Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. 

The Safeway taco shells were purchased at a Washington-area store Sept. 28 and tested Wednesday by a firm in Iowa at the request of the coalition known as the Genetically Engineered Food Alert. 

“This is the second contamination incident in the past couple of weeks,” said Mark Helm, a spokesman for the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “It seems pretty clear that the FDA is doing a miserable job ensuring the safety of the American food supply.”