USDA has agreed to buy the contaminated corn to ensure that it doesn't get planted. Some 77 of the nation's 281 companies have asked for the purchase contracts, USDA spokesman Kevin Herglotz said Monday. Another 68 companies are still testing their seed.
"The important thing was to get (the buyback program) up and running, to make sure we could prevent any potentially contaminated seed from being planted," Herglotz said.
The corn, called StarLink, is genetically modified. Approved for industrial use and as animal feed, it was never licensed for human consumption because of questions about whether it can cause allergic reactions.
The StarLink scare began in September when an anti-GM food group found StarLink in Taco Bell brand taco shells sold in supermarkets. Those shells were soon recalled.
But the specially engineered corn which produces its own pesticide then showed up in other products, spurring a series of recalls in America and triggering a panic in some foreign markets for American grain.
The recalls have corn farmers worried about long-term effects of the StarLink scare on prices. Federal class-action lawsuits were filed on behalf of non-StarLink growers nationwide in December against Aventis, the corn's maker.
The company has agreed to pay millions in compensation to farmers and grain elevators across the country. The deal, estimated to cost Aventis from $100 million to $1 billion, did not prevent farmers or other individuals from suing the company.
The U.S. government said earlier this year it would buy back U.S. corn seed suspected of contamination with StarLink at a cost of between $15 and $20 million.
Still, the National Corn Growers Association has warned farmers against buying seed not certified as StarLink-free and has asked the Agriculture Department for helping in getting that mesage to growers through its network of field agents.
Farmers also have been advised to avoid contaminating their corn crops with stray StarLink plants that will sprout this spring from grain left in fields from last fall's harvest.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates crops that are genetically engineered to produce their own pesticides, is considering whether to lift the ban on StarLink's use in human foods. StarLink is the only biotech crop that is not approved for human consumption.
Aventis submitted new science data to an independent EPA science advisory panel studying StarLink, contending that the corn is safe for human consumption and carries little, if any, risk of triggering diarrhea, rashes, respiratory problems or other allergic reactions.
In its final report, the panel said in December that StarLink has a "medium likelihood" of being an allergen and a "low probability" of triggering allergies.
The panel found StarLink may have triggered allergic reactions in seven to 14 Americans, but added that more study was needed to pinpoint whether StarLink was the cause of the allergic reactions reported by those people, or if another substance might be to blame.
The EPA will use the science panel's report to help determine if the agency will grant approval for StarLink in the human food supply. No timetable exists for that decision.
The controversy over StarLink raised fresh questions in an ongoing debate over bio-engineered foods.
Genetic engineering in agriculture involves splicing a gene from one organism, such as a bacterium, into a plant or animal to confer certain traits, such as drought tolerance or insect resistance in the case of plants.
Late last year, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the biotech industry will likely begin labeling such foods in the wake of the StarLink fiasco, but said the government should not require it.
New rules proposed by the FDA earlier this year outlined voluntary guidelines for labeling, and required food producers to notify the FDA when genetically modified ingredients are used in foods.
Some consumer advocacy groups said the new rules lack teeth, putting companies in the position of verifying the safety of their own products.
The FDA considers genetically altered crops to be the same as regular food, a policy position the agency has held since the first Bush administration and upheld by a federal judge last fall.