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