A Turkey of a Regulation

Corn — or maize as the Indians called it — has always been part of Thanksgiving tradition.

But this year, many Americans have found that processed corn products, such as cornmeal for stuffing or chips for dip, are difficult to find. They have a turkey of a federal regulation to thank.

This completely wrongheaded policy has three parts. First, officials at EPA decided that all new pest-resistant plants created with superior gene-splicing techniques should be regulated as though they harbored a toxic pesticide similar to DDT or rat poison. Second, they decided that an insect-resistant corn variety called StarLink could be consumed by animals but not by humans. Finally, therefore, when minuscule amounts of StarLink corn were detected in foods, a sister agency, the FDA, was compelled by law to issue a recall of more than 300 corn products in supermarkets across the country. (EPA sets standards for pesticide residues and FDA enforces them.)

The bottom line is that not a single person has been or is at all likely to be harmed by the StarLink corn; StarLink corn differs from other commercial varieties by -.containing a protein called Cry9C. This bacterial protein, introduced into corn with gene-splicing techniques, has been approved for animal feed but not for humans because, although it does not . resemble known allergens, it was not immediately degraded in digestion tests. Most food allergens are not readily digested, so EPA wanted more data before concluding that consumers could not be allergic to the protein.

The food products in question are actually far less likely than thousands of other products on the market to cause allergic or other health problems. After exhaustive testing, no allergic reactions, toxicity, or any other problem has been demonstrated with Cry9C or any substance similar to it

The ripple effect of this non-problem concerning StarLink is monumental. Mission Foods, the largest U.S. manufacturer of tortilla products, recalled all its yellow corn products, and major U.S. grocery chains were forced to remove many corn products from their shelves. A Japanese consumer group has charged that some of these banned corn products have found their way into food products in Japan. This raises the stakes significantly, because Japan annually imports about 16 million metric tons of U.S. feed corn, worth around $2 billion.

Predictably, EPA officials have blamed the manufacturer of the corn, Aventis S.A., accusing the company of failing in its responsibility to segregate StarLink from other varieties of corn that are normally eaten by humans.

But the real blame lies in the US. regulatory policy toward gene-spliced plants and foods. EPA and other government agencies in the U.S. hold gene-spliced foods to a far higher standard than other similar foods. It even requires crop and garden plants that have been genetically improved for enhanced pest or disease resistance to undergo the same costly testing as plants treated with pesticides. The policy fails to recognize that there are important differences between spraying synthetic, toxic chemicals and genetic approaches to enhancing plants’ natural pest and disease resistance. EPAs policy is so potentially damaging and outside scientific norms that it has galvanized the scientific community.

A recent analysis of biotech food safety by the Institute of Food Tecchnologists took existing regulatory policies to task, concluding that the evaluation of gene-spliced food “does not require a fundamental change in established principles of food safety; nor does it require a different standard of safety, even though, in fact, more information and a higher standard of safety are being required.” It continued that science “does not support more stringent safety standards than those that apply to conventional  foods.

Scientists worldwide agree that adding genes to plants does not make them less safe. Dozens of new plant varieties produced through hybridization and other traditional methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace each year without scientific review or special labeling. Many such products are from “wide crosses,” hybridizations in which genes are moved from one species or one genus to another to create a plant variety that does not and cannot exist in nature.

Gene-splicing is more precise and predictable than other techniques, and can better exploit the subtleties of plant pathology. For example, the corn in the recalled products was made by splicing in a bacterial gene that produces a protein toxic to corn borer insects, but not to people or other mammals. The gene-spliced corn not only repels pests, but also is less likely to contain Fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the insects. This significantly reduces the levels of the fungal toxin fumonisin, which is known to cause fatal diseases in horses and swine that eat infected corn, and esophageal cancer in humans. Thus, gene-spliced corn not only is cheaper to produce but foods made from it are safer. Moreover, by reducing the need for spraying chemical pesticides on crops it is environmentally friendly.

Yet, regulatory agencies have foisted off on us a hugely expensive turkey, regulating foods from gene-spliced plants in a discriminatory, unnecessarily burdensome way. They have imposed requirements that could not possibly be met for products of conventionally bred crop plants.

Paradoxically, only the more precisely crafted, gene-spliced crops are exhaustively, repeatedly and expensively reviewed before they can enter the field or food supply. Policy-makers have ignored a fundamental rule of regulation — that the degree of scrutiny of a product or activity should be commensurate with the risk. What we need is government policies that make scientific and common sense, and that do not punish innovation.