The Lessons of "Tacogate"
By Dr. Thomas Hoban
It’s been amazing to watch the chain of events unfolding since StarLink, a genetically modified variety of corn used in animal feed but not yet approved for human consumption, was found in American-made taco shells. Domestically, thousands of the shells were stripped from store shelves in a recall that was widened in November to include more than 1.4 million pounds of corn flour and other baking ingredients. Overseas, the Japanese government has reported with alarm that the corn has been found in imported American products.
With all the hue and cry, you’d think a dangerous, if not deadly, ingredient had been introduced into the U.S. and international food supply. But what’s the startling discovery the alarm-raisers have made? Hold onto your seats, folks: Our corn, it seems, has been contaminated — by corn!
StarLink, developed by the French-based drug company Aventis, is really no different from other corn, except for the addition of a gene that produces an insect-fighting protein. Corn had already been dramatically modified from the “natural” plant originally found in the wild. Those ancient ears of corn were the size of your little finger and looked more like grass than modern yellow corn. Over the ages, crossbreeding and, more recently, forced mutation, has produced the ear of corn we eat today. StarLink, with its one gene added to the approximately 60,000 in this modern ear, represents a very modest, precise change by comparison.
StarLink has not been approved for human consumption because of concern that its new protein may cause human allergies. Food allergy specialists have questioned this, pointing out that it’s virtually impossible for anyone to have an existing allergy to a protein that would be completely new to the human diet, and that the corn, planted on only 1 percent of U.S. corn acreage, would be present in food products at extremely low levels. Steve Taylor, head of the University of Nebraska’s department of food science and technology and a leading expert on food allergens, believes “there is virtually no risk associated with the ingestion of StarLink corn in this situation.”
I’ve studied the social impact of biotechnology for more than a decade. My own research and that of others has documented that between two-thirds and three-quarters of U.S. consumers support agricultural biotechnology and welcome its benefits, especially the reduced use of pesticides. This support was still evident in a survey I conducted right after the StarLink news broke. In it, 67 percent of consumers said they would continue to consume biotech products that had been engineered to resist insects, and only 3 percent said biotechnology was their most serious concern about food safety.
Biotechnology represents a powerful set of tools that will have a significant impact on society over the next century. New biotechnology products provide important benefits, including reduced use of chemical pesticides and enhanced vitamin and iron content that will help prevent childhood blindness and other problems in developing countries.
Because it is so powerful, however, society should be able to control this new technology. Biotech crops do undergo extensive safety and nutrition testing, and biotechnology has been shown to be as safe or safer than traditional breeding practices, which have been used for decades without any formal testing or regulation. In an interview last January, FDA Commissioner Jane Henney said her agency has seen “no evidence that the bioengineered foods now on the market pose any human health concerns or are in any way less safe than crops produced through traditional breeding.”
The main lesson of StarLink is that no new agricultural product should be made commercially available until it has received approval for human consumption. All parties now agree to this, so there’s hope we won’t see this kind of problem again. But while companies are expected to be responsible, the activist groups that oppose them and the government agencies that regulate them also need to act responsibly. It’s not reasonable to demand “zero risk” from any technology, nor to hold biotechnology to unreasonably high standards.
The casualties in the war
between the biotechnology industry and its opponents are farmers, food
companies and consumers. Most of us have enough daily concerns without
being frightened into thinking the food we’re eating is dangerous. Food
companies and farmers face serious threats from low profit margins,
industry consolidation and global competition. With all this to worry
about, a scare like StarLink is the last thing that any of us needs.