Taco Shells Contain Biotech Corn Banned for Humans

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, September 18, 2000 (ENS) - Taco shells manufactured by the Philip Morris subsidiary Kraft Foods, Inc. and marketed under the popular Taco Bell brand name have been found to contain a genetically engineered corn product not approved for human consumption, a coalition of environmental groups alleged today.

The charges were made at a news conference in Washington, by Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of environmental, health and consumer groups.

They presented the results of tests performed by an independent Iowa laboratory last month which found that taco shells contained statistically significant amounts of Cry9C corn, a plant pesticide marketed by biotechnology company Aventis.

The shells tested were obtained from a grocery store in suburban Washington earlier this summer.

Cry9C, which Aventis markets under the brand name StarLink, has been found to be heat stable and resistant to stomach acids and enzymes, indicating that it could be a potential allergen. The human health effects of allergens can include skin rashes, nausea and respiratory problems. In severe cases, allergens can cause anaphylactic shock or death.


Taco shells made of corn like these have been found to contain a genetically modified plant pesticide.
Accordingly, under current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, Cry9C corn may only be used as animal feed, as it may not be safe for human consumption.

Genetically Engineered Food Alert has long suspected that Cry9 corn was being incorporated into human foodstuffs despite the admonitions of the EPA or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The coalition commissioned the Iowa laboratory to run tests on a number of corn based food products earlier this summer.

The Taco Bell taco shells obtained from the suburban Washington grocery store are so far the only human foodstuffs to test positive for the substance, said Larry Bohlen, director of Health and Environment Programs at the coalition's member organization Friends of the Earth.

"According to the tests, Taco Bell and Philip Morris have used a genetically engineered ingredient that could put the health of their customers at risk," Bohlen said.

As of Monday, there were no known reports of Cry9C related illnesses stemming from the consumption of Taco Bell Taco shells, Bohlen said.


Farmer examines corn for signs of insect pests. (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept of Agriculture)
Still, Genetically Engineered Food Alert has demanded that Philip Morris and Kraft immediately pull all Taco Bell taco shells from grocery store shelves.

In a strongly worded letter to the FDA on behalf of the coalition, attorney Joseph Mendelson asked that the agency exercise its regulatory powers to seize the suspect taco shells if the companies do not recall the products voluntarily.

"The recall is necessary because the product in question has been independently tested and found to contain residue of the plant pesticide ... Cry9C," Mendelson wrote to FDA commissioner Jane Henney.

"As of today, the Environmental Protection Agency has neither established a tolerance for the Cry9C plant pesticide nor approved an exemption from tolerance for [its] presence in food products directed to human consumption. As such, the product is adulterated under the meaning of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act and its presence in interstate commerce is clearly illegal."

Michael Mudd, Kraft's vice president of corporate affairs, told ENS that the company will not pull Taco Bell taco shells from store shelves until it can either confirm for itself that the products contain Cry9C, or it is told by the FDA to initiate a recall.

"We're taking the issue very seriously," Mudd said. "Our highest priority is to try and locate product samples from the product code dates that were tested to try and verify if there's a problem."

Mudd said that if Genetically Engineered Food Alert saved enough of its suspect sample for Kraft or the FDA to test, the presence of Cry9C could be confirmed - or denied - within 24 hours. If the suspect sample cannot be located or retested, a conclusive response to the allegations made by the coalition may take a bit longer, Mudd said.

"No one here is saying that [Genetically Engineered Food Alert] is wrong, but you do have to go and confirm," Mudd said. There's no resistance on our part to doing the right thing if it is indeed there, but we can't just go out and act on one data point."

The sample of Taco Bell taco shells that Genetically Engineered Food Alert says tested positive for Cry9C consisted of three lot codes with three distinctive expiration dates.

Mudd says that Kraft is attempting to locate other boxes of taco shells with those same codes so that they can be tested. Kraft is also testing random samples of Taco Bell taco shells pulled from its inventory, Mudd added.

"If any of those tests turn up this [Cry9C] protein, we'll immediately advise FDA, and if that means recall, that's what we'll do," Mudd said.

Asked if consumers should take any precautions while Kraft and the FDA try to determine if Cry9C was present in the Taco Bell taco shells, Mudd said, "I think everyone will use their own judgment, but at this point there's no confirmation of any problem. We're moving just as quickly as we possibly can to determine if there is one."

That is not good enough for Congressman, Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio, who blasted the "failure" of the FDA during today's press conference.


Dennis Kucinich (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
"This discovery shows that genetically engineered ingredients should not be on the grocery store shelves when so poorly regulated by the FDA," Kucinich said. "It concerns me and should concern American consumers that this is a glimpse of things to come as genetically engineered products are rushed to store shelves without real mandatory safety testing and labeling programs in place."

Kucinich, the ranking Democrat on a House panel charged with overseeing the EPA and FDA, is sponsoring legislation calling for mandatory labeling and safety testing of genetically modified foods. Kucinich said he will be sending letters to the two agencies in support of the concerns expressed Monday by Genetically Engineered Food Alert.

"We are told over and over again that the Food and Drug Administration is protecting the food supply by carefully scrutinizing this new technology with full consideration for our safety," Kucinich said. We're told over again that GE foods are safe. But what we're here about today is the contamination of the food supply by a genetically engineered corn, used in animal food but not approved for human consumption. In this case, the GE food industry and the FDA have failed the American public, and they're losing the public's trust.

"I think if there's a lesson we're being taught at this moment, it's that a technology that's ahead of science is also a technology ahead of public policy, and ahead of the societal safety net," Kucinich concluded.

Mudd told ENS that Kraft Foods would support some, but not all, of the provisions in Kucinich's bill. "We're certainly in favor of mandatory review of biotech products before they're put into the market. And as far as labeling is concerned, we are in favor of a voluntary system where people can label a product as 'organic' or 'biotech free,' but we don't think there's any basis in science for a measure that says that you must declare the presence of biotech ingredients."


A growing percentage of corn grown in the United States is genetically engineered (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)
But that position was opposed at Monday's press conference by several speakers, including Dr. Jane Rissler, senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"Uncertainly about whether genetic engineering is adding new allergens to the food supply is one reason consumers are demanding a choice to either avoid or eat genetically engineered food," Rissler said. "That choice is impossible without mandatory labeling."

In addition to demanding a recall of all Taco Brand taco shells, Genetically Engineered Food Alert today requested that the FDA move swiftly to test for the presence of Cry9C corn in all products containing non-organic yellow corn #2, the grade of corn to which Cry9C belongs. Products made with yellow corn #2 may include varieties of tortillas, breakfast cereals, corn chips, and frozen TV dinners.

The coalition has also requested that the FDA test taco shells sold at Taco Bell restaurants, which are not affiliated with Kraft Foods or Philip Morris.

Meanwhile, the matter of genetically modified foods is emerging as a campaign issue. Both Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore and Republican contender Texas Governor George W. Bush have come out in support of biotechnology in general. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader has stated that genetic engineering has "outrun the science that must be its first governing principle."

But Nader simply has no chance of getting elected, said Brent Blackwelder, president of Genetically Engineered Food Alert member organization Friends of the Earth.

"We fully concur that Nader's positions are most closely identical with our organization and most other environmental groups," Blackwelder said. "But since Nader does not have the votes to get elected, and third parties do not get elected to the presidency, the real issue of governance comes down to the choice between the front runners."