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USDA to Test Corn Shipments to Japan

Biotech: Unprecedented program seeks to calm fears of StarLink contamination in exports.

November 04, 2000|RANDY FABI | REUTERS

WASHINGTON — The U.S. on Friday sought to calm Japanese fears about biotech corn by launching an unprecedented program to test exports, while a new poll showed a majority of Americans are concerned about the safety of the same gene-altered food.

In the center of the furor is StarLink corn, a gene-spliced variety that has not been approved for use in human food because of U.S. scientists' concern that it might cause allergic reactions.

Traces of StarLink corn were discovered in taco shells in September, unleashing a series of recalls and widespread testing by U.S. food makers. The corn was originated by European bio-pharmaceutical giant Aventis Corp.

Results of a survey of 1,210 American adults released Friday showed 54% of respondents were concerned about the recalls because they raised questions about U.S. food safety.

One-third of those polled also said American farmers should not be allowed to plant any gene-spliced crops. The survey was conducted by Reuters/Zogby.

Even stronger objections have been raised by Japan, the single biggest buyer of American corn exports. Tokyo has tougher rules than the U.S. and does not allow StarLink in human or animal food.

After two weeks of talks and meetings with the Japanese, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday that it will begin testing corn shipments bound for Japan to prevent StarLink bio-corn from contaminating the food supply there.

Tim Galvin, administrator of USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, said an agreement and testing protocol were reached with Japan to preserve U.S. corn sales bound for the country's food supply.

Currently, the USDA does not test any American grain exports for biotech varieties. The government's long-held view has been that gene-altered varieties are essentially the same as conventional grain and should be treated no differently.

Japan, like a dozen other major countries, requires strict labeling on human food products containing genetically altered ingredients. In late October, a Japanese consumer group said it found traces of StarLink in a corn flour baking mix.

The testing costs will eventually be borne by Aventis, officials said.

Galvin also said the USDA will not use any of the contaminated corn in the U.S. government's food assistance programs for poor nations. All of the StarLink corn collected from farmers will be strictly segregated and used only for domestic livestock feed or ethanol production, he said.

Aventis, which has undertaken an estimated $100-million program to buy back all remaining StarLink corn from farmers, declined to comment on whether the company was going to reimburse exporters for the additional costs.

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