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Taco Bell's Shells in First Bioengineered-Food Recall

Health: The Irvine-based chain pulls them from shelves, replaces them in restaurants. Corn used was allowed only for animals.

September 23, 2000|MELINDA FULMER and LESLIE EARNEST | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the first-ever product recall of a food because of its genetically engineered ingredients, Taco Bell brand taco shells are being pulled from supermarket shelves after tests confirmed the presence of corn not approved for human consumption.

The Irvine-based Taco Bell restaurant chain also said that, as a precautionary measure, it has begun the process of substituting taco shells sold in its 7,000 locations nationwide.

The Kraft Foods unit of Philip Morris Co., which distributes the Taco Bell brand shells in supermarkets, said Friday that it is recalling the shells and discontinuing their production until it can ensure that the product is free of the genetically modified ingredient.

The taco shells contain a type of bioengineered corn, StarLink, that "was approved for animal use, not for use in food," said Kathy Knuth, a Kraft spokeswoman. "On that basis alone it should not be eaten."

Although there have been no reported incidents of illness from the corn, consumers who have purchased the products are urged not to eat them and return them to the store where purchased for a full refund.

Although most bioengineered corn and soybeans are considered safe for humans, StarLink contains a pest-repelling protein, Cry9C, which may be hard for humans to digest. It is unclear whether this protein was in the taco shells.

The recall will cost the food giant millions of dollars. The Taco Bell shells accounted for about half of the $100 million in sales generated by Kraft's Taco Bell brand products last year.

Taco Bell, which buys its taco shells from the same manufacturer in Mexico that Kraft uses, said it is still testing its shells for the presence of StarLink corn. Meanwhile, it is continuing to sell taco shells at its restaurants while it awaits shipments of the new shells made with corn flour from a new supplier.

"We will have replenished the entire Taco Bell system within one week from today," Jonathan Blum, Taco Bell's senior vice president, said in an interview Friday.

The fast-food company maintained that the taco shells it sells in its restaurants are "a different recipe" than those sold in grocery stores.

"We're unaware of any known health risk associated with this corn variety, nor have we received a single consumer complaint," Blum said. "Nonetheless, we're taking the matter seriously and continue to cooperate with the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and do the responsible thing to make sure the health and safety of our customers is safeguarded."

Blum declined to say whether the controversy surrounding its branded shells has hurt restaurant sales.

Some Customers Aren't Deterred

Taco Bell customers interviewed Friday said it was good that the company was testing the shells. Richard Schwartz, 34, said he wouldn't stop eating at Taco Bell because of Friday's recall of the shells at supermarkets.

"If it tastes OK, it should be all right," the Buena Park resident said after buying tacos and a chicken burrito for his wife and two children.

But Bibiana Norton, 30, of Costa Mesa, was hesitant about ordering nachos after learning of the recall. "I would want to wait and see what happens [with the testing]."

The restaurant chain said the taco shell problem will have no impact on its licensing agreement with Kraft.

Nonetheless, the incident underlines the difficulty food manufacturers have in ensuring that their processed products are free of genetically altered ingredients. Bioengineered corn and soy isn't segregated at most grain elevators, allowing corn such as StarLink to slip into other products.

"The whole U.S. corn and soybean system is based on commodities," said Sano Shimoda, president of BioScience Securities, a biotech securities research firm. "This demonstrates the need for segregated systems with testing and information control so that the right product can get to the right consumer."

The case also illustrates, analysts say, how unprepared government regulators are to deal with unapproved bioengineered crops slipping into the food supply. Although the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency, two groups with oversight of genetically modified crops, are investigating the matter, they have yet to even test the product.

Indeed, the FDA is still setting up its own testing facility to ensure that it can perform these genetic tests on processed food, according to Jim Maryanski, the FDA's biotechnology coordinator. In a sense, Maryanski said, this is a test case for the system.

"It's certainly the first time we've had a reason to run tests on a corn product produced through bioengineering," he said. Currently, he said, the FDA's labs can test for specific DNA only in crops, not in processed food.

The presence of the StarLink corn in the taco shells was first reported this week by the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which had the shells tested by an independent lab.

Biotechnology proponents applauded Kraft's move, and said that regulators need to work together to find ways to ensure that this doesn't happen again.

"In order for consumers to be confident in the safety of the food supply, they need to know that stuff that's not approved isn't getting in there," said Val Giddings, a geneticist and vice president of the Biotechnoogy Industry Organization.

To protect consumers and manufacturers from another incident like this one, Kraft asked regulators to consider several reforms to their policies, including: discontinuing approvals for bioengineered crops intended for animal use only; mandatory pre-market review of new bioengineered crops; and the establishment of a validated testing procedure so bioengineered products can be detected easily in processed food.

Maryanski noted that food contamination isn't a problem unique to bioengineered crops. However, he said, this case will help the FDA "look at what it needs to do differently in the future."

EPA, which grants licenses for biopesticide crops, said it has not decided whether to revoke the license on StarLink, but is still investigating the matter.

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