Feds Investigate Taco Shell Ingredient

Federal regulators are investigating whether a variety of genetically modified corn that hasn’t been approved for human consumption was used in taco shells sold in grocery stores under the Taco Bell brand.

The Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a consortium of seven consumer organizations based in Washington, D.C, tested 25 processed corn products sold in the supermarket, such as cornmeal, tortilla chips and taco shells, and found Taco Bell taco shells contained the unapproved ingredient — triggering a government investigation.

Government To Verify Findings

It remains unclear, at least from the government’s perspective, what percentage of the Taco Bell shell products contain the genetically modified corn, if they do at all, and if, in fact, the corn poses any health threat to the public. The Environmental Protection Agency is still studying the safety of the product for human use.

The group, opposed to genetically modified foods, alerted the government about the results of its testing, and requested a recall of the taco shells. Should the government verify the finding, a question would be raised as to how an item that currently is not deemed safe for consumption could enter the food supply.

The corn, genetically engineered to, in effect, provide its own pesticide and kill a type of insect, was approved in 1998 for use in animal feed only because of unresolved questions about whether it could cause allergies to humans.

EPA and Food and Drug Administration officials said they had no test results showing the corn had made its way to grocery store shelves, but were investigating the allegations.

“We are looking into what the group found,” said FDA spokesman Brad Stone. “We and the EPA will look at the data and if necessary do independent testing. Depending on the findings, we will take the appropriate action to remove the product from the market.”

“Our concern, of course, is whether or not this product, which is registered for animal feed, is somehow illegally finding its way into food that people eat,” said David Cohen, an EPA spokesman.

FDA, EPA and the Agriculture Department share oversight of genetically engineered crops.

Corn is For Livestock, Not Humans

The corn at issue, produced by Aventis Corp. and known by the trade name StarLink, is the only biotech crop that isn’t approved for human consumption. The corn contains a bacterium gene that makes the plant toxic to the European corn borer insect. Other products containing bioengineered corn with a similar insecticide derived from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis are approved for human consumption.

A scientific panel that advises EPA was unable to come to a conclusion this summer on whether the protein in the corn, Cry9C, would cause allergic reactions.

Because the crop is not approved for human consumption, Aventis is required to make sure StarLink corn is kept separate from grain that is approved for people to eat. Aventis could lose its license to market the crop if it were found the company violated EPA’s restrictions.

The Washington Post first reported on the test results in today’s editions.

The taco shells tested were made in Mexico and distributed by Kraft Foods Inc., a unit of Philip Morris Cos. Inc. Kraft purchased cornmeal for the shells from a Texas mill, which in turn got the corn from farmers in five states, said Michael Mudd, Kraft’s vice president for corporate affairs.

The unapproved corn could have entered the food supply as corn itself, flour or from contamination at the processing plant, experts said.

Kraft Also Testing Products

Kraft plans to have another lab test the products and will issue a recall, if necessary, he said. The products tested had been coded for use by Aug. 8, Sept. 13 and Oct. 20. Kraft also is testing other products, as well as the cornmeal used in the shells’ manufacture. “We want to assure ourselves and the public that we are in compliance with the regulations,” Mudd said.

But environmental activists fear the worst. “Taco Bell and Philip Morris are using an illegal genetically engineered ingredient that could put the health of their customers at risk,” said Larry Bohlen, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth, one of the groups that announced the test results. “This food contamination incident could easily be just the tip of the iceberg.”

Samples of taco shells from Taco Bell restaurants will also be tested soon, group members said.

The testing was done by Genetic ID Inc. at the request of Friends of the Earth. Three sets of tests, performed first in August, all found evidence of the Cry9C protein in the taco shells, said Jeffrey Smith, vice president of Genetic ID.

The protein has the same characteristics as a food allergen, in that it does not break down with heat nor with gastric juices, according to Matt Rand, spokesman for the National Environmental Trust for Biotechnology, a member of the consumer group. But it is unknown whether it is a food allergen, he said.

Biotech officials have questioned the validity of the testing since the company had made conclusions three years ago about the presence of genetically modified foods that were later proved to be inaccurate.

Aware of the questions against the company, scientists tested the taco shells four times and obtained the same results, Rand said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.

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