A Taco Shell Game

Genetic Id, a firm specializing in testing foods for the presence of genetically modified ingredients, recently announced that they detected a variety of corn approved for animal, but not human, consumption in Kraft taco shells (about 1-percent content).

Any claim that a popular food is contaminated is cause for concern, as we all want to eat wholesome, nutritious and pure food, devoid of adulterants. But before we get frightened off our feed, let’s be sure we know the facts.

The contaminant corn, StarLink is a genetically modified corn variety carrying an insecticidal gene. The presence of the gene in the corn plant means farmers do not have to spray chemical insecticides to control insect pests. As a result, there would be less insecticide sprayed into the environment, less collateral damage from non-pest insects the sprays kill, fewer insects (and their parts) in the grain and lower food costs.

The furor arose because this StarLink corn has been approved so far only for animal feed. Its approval for human food use is still pending.

Why is the corn slower to receive approval for food use than similar genes that have commonly been used for several years? The protein, produced from the gene recipe, is slower to digest than its cousins. Slow digestion is one of the many features of allergenic proteins. It is a reasonable question that perhaps the protein has other allergenic properties that need to be investigated before food-use approval is granted. This is fair and prudent.

However, Genetic Id did not find the protein because they used a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR assay, which detects only DNA, the chemical base of genes. Genetic Id tested the taco shells for the presence of the gene DNA, but not for the protein.

Furthermore, the processing of corn to taco shells involves deep-frying, which breaks apart the DNA and denatures (inactivates) any proteins. No gene or fragment of DNA, even deep-fried DNA, is allergenic, toxic or otherwise harmful to humans.

Genetic Id is no stranger to controversy. Although some anti-biotechnology activists describe Genetic Id as an independent lab, it’s anything but. Born of the Natural Law movement, which is opposed to commerce, scientific development and innovation, the company has no hesitation making money from clients frightened of biotechnology. They make their living by identifying specific DNA fragments in food samples. In this case, a coalition of groups opposed to biotechnology commissioned the company to test various food products for genetically modified ingredients. It is in the company’s best interest to first scare people about the safety of food, and secondly to ‘find’ the scary genes in popular food products. Is anyone surprised Genetic Id claims to have found some?

It is possible that that some unauthorized mixing of this feed-approved corn with food-approved corn did occur. After all, occasional inadvertent grain mixing is not new; millions of tons of corn and other crops are produced annually, and a small amount of unintended mixing of different varieties and grades takes place every year.

No one familiar with food production, from farmers to seed handlers to food processors, is surprised to find admixtures in grain. If you go looking for one kind of grain in shiploads of another, you’ll almost certainly find it, at least at low levels (about 1 percent), without too much effort.

Foods with unapproved and potentially hazardous ingredients are routinely and efficiently recalled without necessarily making the front pages of newspapers. What makes this case newsworthy is the fear surrounding the corn’s genetic nature. Is it warranted? Genetic Id’s campaign caused the public considerable anxiety, and 2.5 million boxes of taco shells have been recalled at significant expense. StarLink sales are suspended, denying farmers (and the environment) a useful product. People have ceased enjoying a popular food. Yet there is no evidence of actual harm. Not one allergic reaction (the corn’s supposed hazard) has been documented. How long will our food supply be held ransom to threats and food scares?

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