Deregulation of GE biofuel corn raises food contamination fears

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has deregulated a variety of Syngenta corn genetically engineered (GE) to produce alpha-amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch into sugar, thereby aiding biofuel production.

However, the deregulation has raised concerns about potential contamination of food corn crops, including the possibility that the functionality of food products could be affected.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) claims that the deregulation could have serious consequences for the US food industry, with cross-contamination of non-GE corn “a virtual certainty.”

Director of UCS’s Food and Environment Program Margaret Mellon said: “The USDA’s decision defies common sense. There is no way to protect food corn crops from contamination by ethanol corn. Even with the most stringent precautions, the wind will blow and standards will slip. In this case, there are no required precautions.”

Deputy administrator for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s (APHIS) biotechnology regulatory services Michael Gregoire said in a statement: “APHIS conducted a plant pest risk assessment and found this line of corn does not pose a plant pest risk, and should no longer be subject to regulation by APHIS. APHIS’ deregulation decision is based on the findings of our plant pest risk assessment and environmental assessment.”

Syngenta requested that APHIS deregulate its alpha-amylase corn in 2005.

Among the particular concerns raised by UCS scientists is the idea that the alpha-amylase enzyme might affect the quality of a wide variety of corn-based foods. It claims that one kernel in 10,000 could “affect viscosity in standard food processes”​, meaning that contamination could cause corn snacks to be too fluffy to fit in a standard bag, corn batter to be too thin to coat corn dogs, and corn bread to be too soggy in the middle.”

In addition, UCS said that food processors are concerned about the cost of monitoring their corn supplies for contamination.

APHIS said that the agency is aware of the concerns from the milling and food processing sectors, and said millers and processors should communicate with Syngenta about its research and testing efforts, and “continue their efforts to resolve the issues that remain.”

About a third of all corn grown in the United States is ethanol corn used for biofuel production.

Related topics: Regulation & Safety