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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Genetic Engineering and the Taco Bell Crisis

The Taco Bell crisis and the mixing of genetically altered corn not approved for human consumption into the nation’s corn supply reveals how poorly government regulators have been doing their job.

It was biotech opponents, not the FDA, who discovered that Taco Bell brand taco shells — made by Kraft and sold in grocery stores — was contaminated with Cry9C corn, marketed by the French biotechnology company Aventis under the name StarLink.

StarLink corn is spliced with a protein that kills insect pests. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved StarLink in 1998 for use in animal feed or non-food industrial purposes only. It withheld approval for introduction into the food supply on the grounds that it did not have satisfactory data to show it would not trigger allergic reactions.

This partial approval was bound to lead to contamination of the food supply. But the EPA and the FDA failed to monitor the situation properly. It took Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of health, consumer and environmental groups, to collect samples, test the food and discover the problem. Genetically Engineered Food Alert has since discovered genetic contamination of Safeway and Western Family taco shells.

The Taco Bell crisis is indicative of a much larger problem haunting biotech foods: Genetic engineering has far outrun the science that must be its first governing discipline. Many unknowns attend the insertion of genes across species, from ecological risks to food allergies. These uncertainties beg for investigation, before biotech corporations or their indentured researchers introduce unintended hazards into the natural environment.

In the industry, corporate greed has eclipsed the sound science that should be manifest in contemplations of “Changing the Nature of Nature,” as Martin Teitel and Kimberly Wilson titled a recent book that should serve as a primer on the biotech issue for all citizens and government regulators. Compounding the problem, government regulators have abandoned their duty to protect the public in exchange for a mission of industry boosterism.

The result has been a rush to introduce genetically altered seeds into the natural environment without adequate testing; a frenzy to patent genes, seeds and life forms and to extend monopolistic control over the very stuff of life; and an effort to foist genetically altered food on an unknowing public that would reject biotech foods if notified and given alternatives.

The federal regulatory budget for environmental and human health safety assessment has been tiny in comparison to research and other monies budgeted to aid industry aims. Recently, the Administration supported only the voluntary labeling of genetically modified foods. Under the new plan, the FDA will require companies to disclose the planned release of genetically modified products into the food supply merely 120 days before their introduction. No testing will be required. This decision represents a staggering failure to recognize the precautionary principle and protect human heath and the environment.

It is time to re-establish priorities. Protection of human health and the environment must take precedence over corporate efforts to rush the latest product to market and please investors. We must:

  • Halt the release of genetically altered plants into the environment until comprehensive, independent studies are performed as to environmental and food safety risks under a regulatory framework.
  • Exempt life forms from the purview of patent laws in order to allow broader research and safety testing opportunities by academia and government.
  • Place liability for harm on the owners or licensees of biotechnology patent rights in the event of damages caused by environmental release.
  • Label all food containing any genetically altered ingredients.

Of course, the biotech industry has a different agenda. Growing public outrage — as well as that of corn-purchasing and -selling companies — forced Aventis to stop, for now, sales of StarLink corn and to buy up this year’s harvest of StarLink corn. But Aventis conceded only reluctantly to public concern, because it insists that StarLink is safe for human consumption. In late October, it requested the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency give time-limited approval for the presence of the corn in human food.

This is an industry with no sense of humility or caution. The biotech industry is intent on turning the entire consuming public into guinea pigs. For those not interested in participating in such an involuntary experiment, the time to act is now.

For more information, contact the Council for Responsible Genetics, 5 Upland Road, Suite 3, Cambridge, MA 02140, www.gene-watch.org, or Genetically Engineered Food Alert, 1200 18th Street, NW, 5th floor, Washington, DC 20036, www.gefoodalert.org