The Toronto Star has reported that the StarLink genetically engineered corn could cost the food industry billions of dollars. The pollution of regular strains of corn by StarLink will lead to dozens of lawsuits. “This is going to come back to haunt the regulators and the food industry,” said Don Westfall, vice-president of Promar International, a Washington, DC consulting firm.

Westfall, who supports the development of genetically modified foods, warns that the future of such crops may well depend on how the StarLink situation is handled. If it?s handled badly, consumer resistance to GM foods is likely to increase. “In the future, we will have this problem of newer products with more novel proteins where you can’t really say whether there are allergies,” he said in a telephone interview.

Scientists want to move on from creating varieties of crops that resist insects and diseases to new research that will allow them to grow drugs inside plants. They feel the future of farming may lie in such things as growing cancer drugs in tomatoes. But such advances will also introduce potential toxins to farmers? fields that the industry will have to be able to keep out of the food chain. “Basically, the companies and the government will be placing a bet that it is not an allergen,” Westfall said.

Consumers will not accept drugs in plants if they are not convinced the government or the industry are able to keep them out of the food supply, he warned. So far, they have admitted they have been unable to avoid contamination by StarLink corn.

70 per cent of Americans told a Reuters poll last year that GM foods should be treated with caution. This poll was taken before the StarLink controversy became public.

The StarLink controversy forced Kelloggs to shut down their production lines for almost two weeks to make sure there was no StarLink in their systems. Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s largest poultry producer, refused to buy StarLink as feed as the controversy grew.

France-based Aventis, the creators of StarLink corn, said it would spend $100 million buying back the corn from farmers and food companies. They have extended this offer to include non-StarLink corn grown in nearby fields, saying that pollen blowing from the StarLink may have contaminated neighboring crops.

Lawsuits have begun to spring up from farmers who say the value of their crops has been hurt by the controversy. More lawsuits are expected from companies that have incurred huge costs to test for StarLink, and had to shut down production lines, recall products and pay higher prices for StarLink free corn.

There have also been sales to Japan lost after shipments to the top U.S. market there tested positive for StarLink. “The litigation has only just begun,” Westfall said. While reluctant to put a precise figure on the total cost of the StarLink controversy, he said it could “potentially” be more than $1 billion, once all the lawsuits are settled.

Ann Clark, a plant researcher at the University of Guelph and a fierce opponent of genetically modified foods, said StarLink could be the beginning of the end for GM crops if food companies decide the costs outweigh the benefits. “The food companies are not going to bite the bullet on this one for the industry,” she said.

Clark called the StarLink controversy “a blessing,” for exposing weaknesses in the food industry, and said the problem will grow when more GM products hit the market. “Imagine that instead of just one food product, you’ve got dozens.”

The real impact for Aventis, the manufacturers of StarLink, is not likely to be the cost of the mistake itself, but the public relations damage caused by the controversy and the cost of making sure it doesn’t happen again. They are trying to solve this problem by asking the U.S. government to approve StarLink for human consumption, so they will not need to buy back the trace amounts of the corn still in the food supply.The company has sent new scientific evidence to Washington arguing that StarLink is not a health threat.

But approving the corn now, after such strident efforts have been made to get it out of the food supply, would be a public relations disaster, no matter how sound the scientific reasoning, said Westfall. “What the public will hear is, ?We thought this was a problem, but now we don’t think it is because the companies told us it wasn’t.?” He?s right: we?ve heard that one before.

People would stop trusting government assurances of safety, just as European shoppers stopped trusting regulators after the mad cow crisis there, he said. “You end up with this European attitude that if the government can’t figure out what’s right, we should just ban it all.”

He said the food supply should be tightened to keep out unapproved crops. Food should be tested every step of the way from the farm to the grocery store to ensure its safety. But he believes that GM crops may soon be so prevalent that there may no turning back, despite the cost. “The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so floodedthat there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “You just sort of surrender.”

Westfall would not release a copy of his report, which is being sold to food companies at $5,000 a copy. Sample pages and a table of contents are available at the firm’sweb site.

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