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StarLink™ maize, the first genetically modified organism to be pulled off the market over a decade ago due to safety concerns, was recently found to be contaminating food products in Saudi Arabia. Does this mean that an illegal form of GM corn is still being produced in the US? And if so, renewed testing of US corn-containing products intended for human consumption both domestically and abroad should be initiated immediately.
A new study published in the journal Applied Biochemistry and Biotechnology titled, "Prevalence of Genetically Modified Rice, Maize, and Soy in Saudi Food Products," indicates there is widespread contamination of the Saudi Arabian food supply with GM ingredients, including the highly controversial StarLink™ maize, a variety of Bt corn patented by Aventis CropScience (acquired by Bayer AG in 2002). StarLink™ maize was approved for domestic animal feed and industrial use in the US in 1998, but was segregated from human consumption due to safety concerns related to its potential allergenicity.
In September 2000, residues of StarLink™ maize were detected in taco shells (the so-called Taco Bell GMO recall), indicating that it had entered the human food supply. What followed was the first-ever recall of a genetically modified food, and subsequent widespread disruption of the corn markets in 2000 and 2001, as well as increasing distrust by the public of the biotech industry. Aventis voluntarily withdrew its registration for StarLink™ maize varieties of corn in October 2000,and made promises it would no longer be produced. However, in 2005, aid sent by the Un World Food Programme and the US to Central American nations was found to be highly contaminated with Starlink corn, with 80% of the 50 samples tested coming back positive for StarLink™ maize, compelling the nations of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to refuse the aid. This incident underscored the toothless nature of regulation within the US, and the possibility that StarLink™ maize continued to enter the human food supply domestically and abroad unchecked.
In 2005, Saudi Arabia approved the import of GM food, but the decision explicitly banned the imports and agricultural use of genetically modified animals and their byproducts, GM seeds, dates and decorative plants. Furthermore, products containing GM material were required to be labeled clearly in both Arabic and English and carry official certification that they are approved for human consumption in their country of origin.
In this latest study, 200 samples collected from the Saudi Arabian provinces of Al-Qassim, Riyadh, and Mahdina in 2009 and 2010 were screened for GM ingredients. GMOScreen 35S and NOS test kits were used to detect genetically modified organisms. The results were as follows:
- All rice samples were negative for the presence of 35S and NOS GM gene sequences.
- Approximately 26% of soybean samples were positive for 35S and NOS GM gene sequences.
- Approximately 44% of the maize (corn) samples were positive for the presence of 35S and/or NOS GM gene sequences.
- The results showed that 20.4 % of samples was positive for maize line Bt176, 8.8 % was positive for maize line Bt11, 8.8 % was positive for maize line T25, 5.9 % was positive for maize line MON 810, and 5.9 % was positive for StarLink maize.
- Twelve samples were shown to contain <3 % of genetically modified (GM) soy and 6 samples >10 % of GM soy. Four samples containing GM maize were shown to contain >5 % of GM maize MON 810. Four samples containing GM maize were shown to contain >1 % of StarLink maize
The discovery of more than 1% contamination of maize samples with Starlink maize is highly significant, as the detection sensitivity of present-day kits reaches 0.125% (1 StarLink kernel in 800) for most test kits and 0.01 percent (1 Starlink kernel in 10,000) for highly-sensitive kits. This means that the likelihood of a false positive is extraordinarily low.
The authors of the study concluded from their findings that, "Establishing strong regulations and certified laboratories to monitor GM foods or crops in Saudi market is recommended."
This is not the first time that GM ingredient contamination of the food supply has been identified in Saudi Arabia. In 2010, a study published in the African Journal of Food Science titled," Monitoring of genetically modified food in Saudi Arabia," evaluated 202 samples of mostly imported food, sampled from Ridyadh local markets. The samples comprised of 50 types of corn seeds, flour, starch, pop corn, fresh sweet corn and baby corn; 36 types of seeds, pre-fried and frozen potatoes, 14 types of canned foods, 14 types of wheat seeds and flours, 32 types of frozen meat, 6 samples of tofu, soy flour, soy sauce and seeds, 16 samples of clover seed, 10 samples of sorghum seeds, 24 samples of tomato seeds, paste and canned tomatoes. Using DNA extraction and quantification techniques, they found 20 of the 202 samples were positive for GM ingredients. 16 of the 20 positive samples were ground meat which contained GM Roundup-Ready soybeans. Three of the remaining four positive samples were corn or corn products, with the last positive sample containing GM potato material.
According to the 2010 study, "...the Saudi Arabian GMO labeling requirement is set to be 1% maximum threshold limit for defining a GM foodstuff. If a product contains one or more GM ingredients, a triangle should be drawn and in it the text should read "Contains Genetically Modified Product (s). The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) banned imports of GM seeds in January of 2004, and thus no GM crop is grown in the country. Both the MOA and the Saudi Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI), respectively, allow imports of GM grain and plant/vegetable based processed foodstuffs as long as they are labeled (Mousa and Giles, 2005)."
When we consider that a form of GMO corn that was banned from the US market over a decade ago is now resurfacing in edible products in a distinct country like Saudi Arabia, whose GM import and labeling laws are much more stringent than our own, we can only wonder how prevalent StarLink™ corn contamination still is in the US. If anything, this underscores how dangerous GM agriculture is in producing a type of biopollution whose contamination of the biosphere is uncontrollable and irrevocable. Given these latest findings, we believe it is advisable to push for renewed testing of StarLink™ maize in US corn-containing products, and further the cause for mandatory labeling of GM-containing products and/or a total boycott of any and all manufacturers who are not already complying with this objective, or do not already have plans to do so in the immediate future.
 Agricultural Biotechnology: Updated Benefit Estimates, Janet E. Carpenter and Leonard P. Gianessi 2001, National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy
 ENS-Newswire, Banned as Human Food, StarLink Corn Found in Food Aid, Feb. 2005