StarLink, the type of genetically modified corn that, when found in Taco Bell taco shells, prompted a nationwide recall, may have reached at least 50 grain elevators that could have sold it for milling into food.
CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports the company that makes StarLink, the Aventis corporation, is trying to track up to 9 million bushels of the corn it can't account for, which might have reached the food supply.
Adventis admits that means StarLink, besides being in the taco shells, may also be in corn chips and corn flakes.
"These mills may have already sold the flour to food processors and the contaminated genetically engineered corn could be in the food that we're eating," said Larry Bohlen of Friends of the Earth, the environmental group that first blew the whistle on the contamination.
Kraft Foods announced in September a recall of taco shells sold in supermarkets under the Taco Bell brand after tests confirmed they were made with StarLink. There were no confirmed cases of people sickened by the shells.
Despite the fear of consumer exposure, few scientists in government or industry believe StarLink will ever make anyone sick. Even the Environmental Protection Agency, which in 1998 restricted StarLink to use as animal feed, says it did so only on the precaution that a single protein in the corn might cause an allergy.
"We believe if there are risks, they would be remote," said Stephen Johnson, the EPA Deputy Director for Pesticides. "These are very trace amounts."
However, the EPA now says it will never again issue a license like the one granted to farmers who used StarLink.
Farmers who grew the corn were supposed to sign ironclad agreements to market it only as animal feed. Aventis was to enforce those agreements.
Government regulators now tell CBS News many farmers didn't receive or didn't sign those contracts.
"Certainly a lesson learned is that the split registration of products of biotechnologyalthough allowed by lawdid not work," Johnson said. It was the first time such a license had been issued.
The regulation of GM foods had already come under scrutiny because of the StarLink scare.
A Senate panel last month grilled federal regulators about their GM food rules.
Announcing its recall, Kraft said it was surprised the Food and Drug Administration didn't regulate biotech foods more thoroughly.
Kraft called for mandatory review of all new biotech crops, something the FDA itself proposed in May, and urged the government not to approve new crops unless there is a proven method of testing for their genetic material.
The Biotech Industry Organization argued that farmers shouldn't be allowed to grow a crop that isn't approved for food use.
The Kraft recall was the first one aimed at any genetically modified food, which is created by altering the genetic makeup of certain crops. Kraft's action was followed by similar moves by millers and grocers.
t was a major coup for groups that oppose the use of such food, which is now in about two-thirds of America's processed foods.
While most of the U.S. political, scientific and commercial establishment has embraced biotechnology as safe and useful, activists continue to raise questions about its use and hope to inspire the kind of widespread backlash present in Europe.
Aventis agreed in September to buy all of this year's crop of the grain to keep it from getting into the food supply. About 300,000 acres of the corn were planted, representing 0.4 percent of the total corn acreage and worth an estimated $68 million.
The corn will eventually be sold for cattle feed or for production of ethanol, a gasoline additive, USDA officials said.
The StarLink corn is genetically modified to contain the plant pesticide Bacillus thuringienis, or Bt, which kills the destructive European corn borer. While there are many varieties of Bt corn now, StarLink is the only one that contains th Cry9C protein.
The EPA has said that "information...indicates that Cry9c exhibits some characteristics of known allergens."
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