Next time you whip through a Taco Bell drive-through for a chalupa or gordita, just think: 60 million dollars. That's the amount the franchise outfit is going to receive to partially reimburse it for lost business when it dumped, a while back, all its taco shells “contaminated” with StarLink corn, a genetically modified variety not approved for human consumption.

The company is being paid by its suppliers, who say they in turn will seek damages from those responsible for letting the corn get into the food system. No word on whether supermarkets and other food outlets across the country will try to collect damages for the taco shells, corn chips, and some 300 other products they pulled from shelves in the wake of the media frenzy that surrounded the situation.

But the $60 million to Taco Bell is spit in the ocean compared to the amount (up to $1 billion) Aventis has committed to pay to indemnify farmers and others for losses related to StarLink. Add in legal bills for the various parties involved in the ongoing wrangle, and who knows what the eventual cost will be.

There is both irony and assurance in the StarLink episode.

The irony is that almost to the day Taco Bell was awarded its $60 million, the federal Centers for Disease Control announced that, after extensive testing, it had found not a scintilla of scientific evidence that the minute amounts of StarLink corn in any of the recalled products caused any allergic reaction to any of the 48 people who claimed they were adversely affected.

No news to Aventis, which had already done its own exhaustive human safety tests before StarLink was ever sold to growers (even though the seed was initially released only to produce corn for livestock and non-food uses).

The assurance comes from the demonstration that the U.S. food system can, rightly or wrongly, react quickly to remove potentially problem some products from consumer channels. In the StarLink instance, it proved unnecessary and very costly.

Unfortunately, what could have proven to be an excellent variety for corn growers may be doomed from the controversy and the negative image in trade channels. Both Japan, the largest buyer of American corn, and South Korea say the CDC finding of non-allegenicity is not likely to spur their buyers to return to levels of U.S. corn purchases prior to the StarLink scare. Japan instituted strict testing procedures for corn imports and South Korea has switched some of its purchases to South America.

Even though the United States began pre-testing of corn exports late last year to detect genetically modified varieties, and the Japanese ministry says the volume of StarLink in its own sampling is now only about 0.1 percent, buyers in Japan say the fact that the corn isn't labeled for human consumption in the United States continues to be a strike against it.

Aventis has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to permit a minimum amount of StarLink corn (up to 20 parts per billion) in food products, which would negate much of the potential for contamination recalls. The CDC findings may help persuade the EPA to issue a favorable ruling.

That isn't likely to end the controversy surrounding StarLink, however. Opponents of the corn and other bioengineered crops vow to continue pressures on Congress, the administration, and government regulatory agencies.

“It would be unacceptable to approve StarLink for human consumption when the science is clearly incomplete,” said Matt Rand of the National Environmental Trust. Friends of the Earth spokesman Bill Freese said, “Test results from such a small sample could easily have missed allergic reactions. A thorough investigation is exactly what the public deserves.”

The U.S. Public Interest Research group, in a 98-page report, “Raising Risk,” said the USDA has approved field tests that “make our environment the laboratory for widespread experimentation of genetically engineered organisms.”

The road to biotech's bright future will likely remain rocky for those companies pioneering this new science.


e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com