IRVING, Texas - StarLink corn may end up mutating the worldview of genetically engineered food - possibly without ever making anyone sick and without today's science confirming its presence in anybody's food.

British and U.S. specialists in genetic analysis have warned that current technology still doesn't ensure accurate results from tests to detect ultra-microscopic levels of genetically modified (GM) ingredients in foods.

Those are the same tests that won't let the marketplace ever forget this alleged corn-food intruder. This hybrid, genetically modified to produce its own all-natural pesticide, has sparked massive retail food recalls running at least into the 10s of millions of dollars. StarLink had been approved only for livestock feed and nonfood industrial uses, not for direct human consumption.

Alas, segregating this bit player from its yellow cousins in the corn world has proven to be impossible, if the few positive tests reported are accurate.

Just this week Aventis CropScience, the developer and marketer of StarLink, confirmed the presence of StarLink's Cry9C protein in test samples of a variety of corn seed that was produced in 1998 and not sold under the StarLink trademark.

The seed brand in question was produced by Garst Seed Co., based in Iowa. Aventis CropScience performed the tests after several farmers reported that corn with no known connection to StarLink was testing positive for Cry9C, the protein that is toxic to some big corn pests.

Aventis and the U.S. Department of Agriculture say they don't know how Cry9C protein came to be present in a variety other than StarLink brand seeds. But the USDA has said the Garst seed intrusion may have been due to either drifting pollen in fields or careless handling of the Garst or StarLink seed.

In the two months since this manmade mutant's genetic signature reportedly flashed out of just one test of one sample of one brand of U.S. taco shells, about 7.5 million to 8 million pounds of U.S. yellow-corn foods have been recalled. The recalls affected nearly every grocery store and many food processors in the nation.

Irving, Texas-based Mission Foods, one of five companies at the core of the voluntary recalls, told StoreAlliance.com that it could not confirm StarLink's presence after two independent labs conducted more than 200 tests on samples of Mission's own yellow-corn products.

"The science did not help us," said Mission Foods spokesman Peter J. Pitts. "The tests couldn't help us. That's the reason we got out of the yellow-corn business and into the 100-percent white-corn business" at least until the government sets new residue standards and approves reliable tests, he said.

The company, he said, used two independent labs, including the same one used by Friends of the Earth to pursue StarLink in Taco Bell brand taco shells and other products. That one was Genetic ID of Ames, Iowa, and the other was Central Hans of New Orleans, Pitts said.

Samples, he said, were pulled from identical lots of Mission-made products and sent to both labs.

Pitts said the results, whether positive or negative for StarLink at either lab, were never confirmed by tests at both labs working with identical-lot samples of the same products.

"Even the same lab at times got contradictory results on tests of the same product sample," Pitts said, citing consistently contradictory results. "We could not replicate the findings" by whatever lab scientists found StarLink for Friends of the Earth.

Nonetheless, Mission Foods opted to go with "an abundance of caution" because even a remote consumer hazard was unwanted and a suspected violation of federal regulations would undermine its retail clienele's confidence, Pitts said. So, Mission rushed to retrieve and remove its suspect products from grocery shelves and distributors.

As for being a health hazard, consumers have reported to the federal government 14 or 15 cases in which they suspect their health may have been affected by eating foods that may have contained StarLink traces.

But 7 or 8 of the 14-15 cases have been unlinked from the controversial corn, according to still unofficial findings by the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and EPA, a government source said.

While the remaining health cases are still being investigated, none of the medical findings, so far, confirm any allergic or other human reactions to be StarLink induced, EPA and FDA sources told
www.StoreAlliance.com.

The government, the sources said, still hasn't confirmed whether StarLink was present in any of the foods consumed by the people in the reported cases.

The American Association of Cereal Chemists says scientists agree that "current tests do not reliably detect the presence or absence of genetically engineered traits in processed food products."

"It is now possible to detect very low levels of GM ingredients in all kinds of foods," Andrew Tingey, a scientist with the United Kingdom's first GM-testing laboratory, told Food Industry News. "However, even the best available methods for quantifying the amounts found have a relative accuracy of plus or minus 10 percent. To rely on any results that do not accept this margin of error is an act of folly. It leaves the industry at risk of breaking the law on labelling."

On the U.S. StarLink trail, all but about 1.5 million pounds of the suspect foods were recalled on the basis of just three samples testing positive for StarLink in an industry typically handling around 500 billion or more pounds of raw corn annually.

It all began with just one positive test for StarLink in one sample of the Taco Bell taco shell brand made for Kraft by Sabritas Mexicali with corn flour from Azteca Milling, a sister company to Mission Foods. Kraft initiated the recall even before the government could run its own test, an FDA spokesman said.

The initial detection came from a lab chosen by watchdog activists at Friends of the Earth. Later, separate recalls - not linked to Mission or Azteca - were issued for a wider range of products from ConAgra Foods and Wilson Foods. FDA and EPA officials have declined to say how many StarLink tests have been run -- or release details of their results.

By WORTH WREN JR.
StoreAlliance.com Staff Writer