What is the StarLink Corn Controversy and How Was Taco Bell Associated?

Posted by Eric Troy on 18 Apr 2013 14:26

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Starlink Corn is the brand name for Bt corn, a genetically modified yellow corn developed by Aventis Crop Science of the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. The corn contains a gene that codes for a pesticide called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This pesticide is used on crops of organic farmers. However, the modified corn has only been approved for use in animal feeds and nonfood industrial purposes, and not human foods.

The genes that make the Bt pesticide in StarLink corn code for the Cry9c variant of Bacillus thuringiensis. This is a protein that kills certain insects by eroding their guts, which leads to sepsis and, of course, the inability to digest food. One of the main targets of the modification was the European corn borer. StarLink corn was deemed not fit for human consumption because of the possibility of allergic reactions.

In October and September of 2000, newspapers reports surfaced that StarLink corn had found its way into Taco Bell brand taco shells that were sold in American grocery stores. Kraft foods, who sells the shells, initiated a voluntary recall of all Taco Bell Home Oringals taco shell products. This made it the first food ever recalled in the United States because of a genetically engineered ingredient.

Taco Bell shells, however, were not the only product affected. The consumer group Genetically Engineered Foods Alert had done tests on taco shells and other corn-based products from grocery stores and fast food restaurants. The organization called a press conference on September 18, 2000. After these reports became public, the CDC and several lawyers received about 37 reports of supposed food poisoning or other reactions to the shells. Some tortillas, snack chips and other products made by Misson Foods of Irving, Texas also used the corn, along with other products. In all, nearly 300 products were recalled. The corn was found in 70 types of corn chips, 80 types of taco shells, and around 100 restaurant products.

One of the persons who filed a report was a woman named Grace Booth, who had gone into anaphylactic shock after eating three enchiladas made with corn tortillas. Although she had not heard the StarLink corn reports, a friend mentioned them to her after she got out of the hospital, leading her to suspect that this had been the cause of her severe allergic reaction.

The reason that StarLink corn found its way into human food products was because a very large amount of it was somehow co-mingled with regular corn. The Economic Research Service of the USDA said that 123.8 million bushels were mixed in with the regular corn supply in 2000. Aventis, the inventor, claimed that over 430 million bushels were mixed in in 1999 and 2000. Much of the co-mingling was due to cross-pollination when the GM corn was planted to close to regular corn crops because certain farmers were either unaware of, or ignored, the buffer zone required by regulations.

See also: Is the Monarch Butterfly Really Endangered by Bt Corn?

1. Pence, Gregory E. Designer Food: Mutant Harvest or Breadbasket of the World? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
2. Gad, Shayne C. Handbook of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Interscience, 2007.
3. Hart, Kathleen. Eating in the Dark: America's Experiment with Genetically Engineered Food. New York: Vintage, 2003.

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