GM Corn Fears Close Plant

Actress Julie Andrews accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award from her "Mary Poppins" co-star, actor Dick Van Dyke, onstage at the 13th Annual Screen Actor Guild Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on Jan. 28, 2007, in Los Angeles, Calif.
ConAgra Foods Inc. said Tuesday it has suspended milling operations at its corn processing plant in Kansas while it tests for the presence of an unapproved variety of gene-modified corn.

ConAgra's action is the latest example of how companies all along the food supply chain, from the seed manufacturer to grocery chains, are stepping up efforts to remove a corn variety that was first detected in Taco Bell brand taco shells sold by Philip Morris Cos. Inc.'s Kraft Foods unit and recalled from grocery stores last month.

The nation's largest manufacturer of tortilla products, Mission Foods Co. of Irving, Texas, has already recalled all of its tortillas, taco shells and snack chips and said it was switching from yellow to white corn because the flour may contain an unapproved biotech variety of grain.

That move followed a decision by Safeway Inc. to remove all of Mission's taco shells from its stores and an earlier recall of taco shells by Kraft Foods.

A sister company to Mission, Azteca Milling, announced that it was recalling all of its flour made from yellow corn. Azteca supplied the flour for both the Mission Foods and Kraft taco shells.

At issue is a variety of genetically engineered corn, known as StarLink, that is not approved for human consumption because of questions about its potential to cause allergic reactions. Federal officials say the health risk is remote.

"Our guiding concern has been to protect the safety of the consumer, our customers and our food products," said Steve Brunner, senior vice president of Mission Foods.

Mission Foods is a subsidiary of Gruma S.A. of Monterrey, Mexico. Azteca Milling is a partnership of Gruma and Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland Co.

Mission's recall applies to all of its tortilla products, which are sold under both the Mission name and under a variety of private and generic labels. The volume of product was not immediately known, officials said. Information about the recall was to be posted to the company's Web site.

Officials with Azteca Milling said they initiated their recall of the flour because they were not confident of methods of testing for the StarLink corn. The company plans to mill only white corn.

"Because StarLink is a yellow corn, and we believe that we need to assure our customers and the public that products made with our flour are safe, the surest way to bolster confidence is to make products with only white corn," said Dan Lynn, Azteca's president.

The corn that was detected in the Kraft and Mission taco shells is believed to have originated at Azteca's mill in Plainview, Texas.

On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency said that the seed's developer, Aventis CropScience, had agreed to cancel its license to sell the corn.

Aventis already had suspended sales of the seed for next year's crop and agreed to reimburse the government for purchasing all of this year's hrvest.

The corn contains a bacterium gene that makes it toxic to some insects. All such pest-resistant crops must be licensed by EPA before farmers are allowed to grow them. StarLink is one of the least-used varieties of biotech corn and the only one not allowed in food.

The Food and Drug Administration has been testing various food products for the corn, but officials have declined to discuss the results.

Critics of biotech food say the StarLink incident shows that government regulation of genetically engineered crops is inadequate.

The government should have never approved StarLink in the first place until it was permitted to be used in food, said Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"This is really a black eye to the regulatory regime," she said.

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