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Date:

September 26, 2000

Subject:

Aventis Is Suspending Seed Sales Of Genetically Engineered

 

Aventis Is Suspending Seed Sales Of Genetically Engineered Corn
By SCOTT KILMAN
September 27, 2000

Aventis SA said it is suspending seed sales of the genetically modified
corn that tainted Kraft Foods' taco shells.

The French pharmaceutical and agricultural company, inventor of the corn,
said it won't resume U.S. sales of the seed until Washington approves the
crop for use in human food, which regulators say won't happen anytime
soon. It is the first time a major crop-biotechnology firm has frozen
sales of a genetically modified seed.

Aventis, began licensing U.S. companies to market the genetically modified
seed, called StarLink, in 1998 after the Environmental Protection Agency
cleared the corn for use in livestock feed and for making ethanol fuel.
The corn, engineered to make its own insecticide, isn't approved for human
consumption. Regulators aren't convinced the bug-killing protein, called
Cry9C, isn't a potential food allergen.

Kraft, a unit of Philip Morris Cos., New York, began voluntarily recalling
millions of taco shells from U.S. supermarkets Friday after independent
laboratory tests conducted for it confirmed a report from an
antibiotechnology group that some shells illegally contain ingredients
from StarLink corn. The shells are marketed under a license from Taco
Bell, a fast-food chain owned by Tricon Global Restaurants Inc.

Aventis' move won't have noticeable financial impact on the company, which
had revenue of $20.7 billion in 1999 on a pro-forma basis. Aventis,
created by the December 1999 merger of European pharmaceutical companies
Hoechst AG and Rhone-Poulenc SA, is generating roughly $1 million this
year from licensing the fledgling StarLink gene to U.S. seed firms. In 4
p.m. New York Stock Exchange composite trading Tuesday, Aventis rose 44
cents to $74.44 a share.

Aventis said its suspension is designed to reassure the public that
StarLink corn won't get into the food supply in the future. "It isn't in
our interest to sell corn seed if it is causing confusion," said Aventis
spokesman Rick Rountree. Stephen L. Johnson, EPA deputy assistant
administrator for pesticides, called Aventis' decision "a prudent action
that we fully support."

It is unclear whether Aventis can prevent the corn from entering the food
chain. StarLink is grown on 315,000 acres on farms scattered from Texas to
Illinois.

Federal regulators aren't yet sure how the taco-shell debacle happened in
the first place. Some food industry officials suspect airborne pollen from
a StarLink field might have blown into fields of conventional corn being
grown under contract for the Azteca Milling facility in Plainview, Texas,
which makes corn flour for Kraft's taco shell.

The EPA requires that farmers plant StarLink seed at least 660 feet from
other cornfields to prevent cross-pollination. Organic farmers, who have
turned their backs on biotechnology, have complained that such buffers
aren't sufficient to protect their fields from pollen drift.

It is also possible that a farmer or grain handler accidentally mixed a
shipment of StarLink corn with grain destined for Azteca Milling. Both
types of corn look so similar that chemical analysis is needed to tell
them apart.

The StarLink plant uses a gene transplanted from a common soil organism,
Bacillus thuringiensis, to make a protein toxic to certain insects.
StarLink's gene expresses a slightly different protein from the sort made
by the other types of insect-resistant corn already approved for use in
food. Of the 40 or so genetically modified crops on the market, StarLink
corn is the only one that isn't approved for human consumption.

The taco-shell incident revealed that the food industry lacks a quick and
reliable way to screen its products for the presence of genetically
modified organisms.

It took Kraft several days to determine whether StarLink corn is in its
taco shells, and some biotechnology officials still doubt Kraft's results.
Some food companies testing their products in wake of the Kraft recall
complain privately that the same sample can test positive and negative for
StarLink, depending on what method is used.

Capitalizing on the confusion, Strategic Diagnostics Inc., a Newark, Del.,
testing firm, began selling the first rapid-field test for StarLink only
yesterday. Arthur A. Koch Jr., Strategic Diagnostics chief operating
officer, said the company is so swamped with orders from grain handlers it
is rationing the kits. The field test is designed to detect the StarLink
protein in raw corn, which means it doesn't work on processed foods such
as taco shells.

The recall was ammunition for antibiotechnology groups in a Senate health
committee hearing Tuesday. Groups such as Friends of the Earth want far
tighter regulation of the young science by the Food and Drug
Administration, among other agencies. They're lobbying for mandatory
labels on food products that contain genetically modified organisms, an
idea most big food companies oppose.

"It is not lost on consumers that the problem was discovered not by the
FDA or EPA, but by Friends of the Earth," Consumers Union researcher
Michael Hansen told the committee.

-- Sara Leuck in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Scott Kilman at scot.kilman@wsj.com