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Biotech food safety: Not one rash, cough

In the ongoing tempest in a teapot over the inadvertent commingling of some genetically modified corn in supplies used for making taco shells, activist groups have seized on it as yet another reason for hamstringing the use and further development of biotech crops.

Immaterial that the offending taco shells were taken off supermarket shelves and that many millions of dollars have been spent in recalling the corn that wasn't officially approved for food use. Immaterial, too, that no instances have been reported of any adverse effects from the minuscule number of people who may have actually consumed products containing the corn and that the variety is expected to be approved for human consumption.

As seems to be standard operating procedure for anything involving food safety, the national media has given wide play to the incident. The public, after its initial reaction, seems to have taken a ho-hum approach.

Despite all the furor in Europe over food use of biotech crops, American consumers have, in the main, accepted that the U.S. has adequate safeguards in place to insure the safety of the food they eat. In addition to stringent review and oversight by the Food and Drug Administration, the USDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency (there are no equivalent agencies in Europe), the safety of biotech foods has been affirmed by leading national and international health organizations, including the American Dietetic Association, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, and the National Research Council.

The safety of biotech crops has best been summarized by David Aaron, Undersecretary for International Trade in the U.S. Department of Commerce, in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee: "Thirteen years of experience with biotech products have produced no evidence of food safety risks beyond those of their natural counterparts," he said. "There has not been one rash, not one cough, not one sore throat, not one headache attributable to biotech products."

In an excellent paper on the industry's perspective on crop biotechnology, Steve Forsberg, president and chief executive officer of the Western Crop Protection Association, notes that years of research and testing by the federal government and a broad consensus of the medical and scientific communities "have concluded that foods produced by biotechnology are safe (and) the U.S. government plays a critical role in insuring that the system works and consumers are protected."

Comprehensive and rigorous science-based regulations are in place to accomplish that, he says. "In fact, U.S. government oversight of biotechnology has 10 separate places where an agency could call a halt to the commercialization of a biotech food or crop product. Foods derived through biotechnology are among the most thoroughly studied and researched foods on the market today. That is, in part, why it takes up to 10 years to bring a new genetically improved crop from discovery to market release."

The StarLink corn used in the taco shells, Forsberg points out, had passed every safety protocol except for one involving a single protein that might have an allergenic problem for some humans, but the EPA held up approval for food use until additional data were obtained, noting however that it "does not have any evidence that food containing StarLink corn will cause any allergic reaction in people."

After the taco incident, Aventis voluntarily withdrew its registration and guaranteed that every farmer who harvested the corn would receive fair market value for his crop, plus a premium.

Forsberg said the crop protection industry will continue to work with the USDA and other interested parties to develop clear, reliable detection methods for grain, including an identity preservation system.

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