Commentary: After Taco Bell: Can Biotech Learn Its Lesson?

It's been a chaotic month for the biotech industry. The trouble began in late September when genetically engineered animal corn--potentially harmful to humans--was found in Taco Bell taco shells. Then it showed up in Safeway Inc.'s house-brand taco shells. In mid-October, Kellogg Co. shut down a production line in Memphis, because testing had delayed grain deliveries.

What is perhaps most embarrassing for the industry is that all of this was triggered by its critics. The animal-feed contamination was discovered by the Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of environmental groups that favor tougher biotech regulations. They are now busy testing all the corn products they can get their hands on. Some millers and food processors say they will buy only white corn until all of the animal corn--which is yellow--has been accounted for.

Once again, it seems, the industry has hurt itself with its unyielding opposition to labeling or special regulations for biotech foods. Many consumers, already wary of biotech foods, will likely become even more skeptical. It could cost the industry millions to find the animal corn and get it out of the food supply. And distributors and food companies will find themselves stuck with corn they can't use or sell.

ALLERGENS? More than just the industry's well-being is at stake, however. Properly used, these new biotech crops have enormous potential to reduce pesticide use, improve human nutrition, and ease hunger in developing countries. But none of that will happen unless consumers believe that the foods are safe.

The genetically engineered corn, called Starlink, is made by Aventis CropScience, a U.S. subsidiary of Aventis of France. Starlink was altered to make it resistant to pests. It carries a foreign protein that is probably safe for human consumption but which does have some of the chemical characteristics of a human allergen--a general term for substances that can theoretically trigger anything from a mild allergy to a fatal case of shock.

Animal feed is not supposed to get into the food supply, whether or not it is genetically engineered. This is a clear case where special tracking of biotech crops might have allowed the industry to find the contaminated corn and remove it from the human food supply much more quickly than it is able to do now.

Instead, the industry is scrambling. Gary Strube, manager of the Superior Cooperative Elevator Co. in northern Iowa, tested 31 cars of grain in a 75-car train bound for Archer Daniels Midland Co. processing plants in Iowa. He found Starlink in 18 of the 31 cars tested and stopped testing--he assumed the entire lot was bad. He sold it for chicken feed in Arkansas--he won't say to whom---at a price 7 cents less than what he would have received from ADM.

Aventis is trying to find and buy back all the Starlink corn, which was planted on 350,000 acres across the country. But it is harvest time, and 9 million bushels have left the farm. They could already be in the human food supply.

That helps explain the other move Aventis has up its sleeve. On Oct. 25, Aventis asked the Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily approve Starlink for human use. That would neatly solve Aventis' problem--and infuriate its critics. "I think consumers would be outraged," says Charles Margulis, the genetic-engineering specialist at Greenpeace. "You're telling them this is a potential allergen, but because it's inconvenient for the industry, we're going to go ahead and let people be experimented on."

None of this has led the biotech-food industry to soften its opposition to labeling or to any special regulations for biotech products. But it's time for a change. Biotech foods are new, they are different, and they deserve special regulations. The industry should drop its opposition to tougher regulations. That could boost consumer confidence and disarm the critics. Then we might all begin to enjoy, much sooner, the benefits that biotech foods can provide.

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