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StarLink corn still appearing

(Sunday, Aug. 3, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Chris Clayton, Omaha World-Herald, 07/30/03: It has been nearly three years since detection of StarLink corn in the U.S. food supply led to recalls, yet traces of the genetically modified corn still show up in grain shipments to millers.

"We see it every week and just about every day," said James Bair, vice president of the North American Millers' Association. As long as traces continue to show up, farmers can receive compensation for money they lost. Claims by farmers who might be eligible for part of a $110 million class-action settlement must be filed by Thursday.

Bair said positive tests occur at mills in both Iowa and Nebraska, but officials with the Nebraska Corn Board and Iowa Corn Growers Association said they weren't aware that StarLink was still in grain supplies.

"Under zero-tolerance, there is a slight risk you could find it," said Don Hutchens, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Board. "We believe the risk is constantly diminishing."

Though StarLink never was found to be dangerous to people, its discovery in taco shells in 2000 led to a national recall and subsequent testing of corn. Countries including Japan and South Korea closed their borders to U.S. corn.

StarLink was, in Hutchens' words, a "monumental error from a logistics standpoint" when the biotech corn was approved for animal feed but not human consumption. Some farmers didn't follow planting guidelines. Grain elevators accepted StarLink with other corn meant for food mills or for exporting.

Several lawsuits ensued, and a settlement was reached with farmers who did not grow the corn but might have suffered financially because of cross-contamination. Farmers could receive about $2 an acre in compensation for crops grown from 1998 to 2002.

Farmers don't have to prove that they lost money because of StarLink contamination, but they do have to show evidence that they had a corn crop in 2000.

More information about the settlement may be found at http://www.nonstarlinkfarmerssettlement.com . Letters about the StarLink settlement were sent to every corn grower in Nebraska and Iowa. Initially, many farmers didn't think they were eligible because they didn't grow StarLink corn.

Others thought the forms were too complicated, Hutchens said. "So many of the forms were discarded." Confusion prompted extension of the filing deadline from May to July 31, allowing groups such as the corn board to help farmers with paperwork.

Hutchens said his staff helped about 700 Nebraska farmers download the forms off the Internet and answered questions for others. Although StarLink amounted to only a fraction of the nation's corn crop in 2000, about 58 percent of 300,000 or so acres planted with StarLink were in Iowa and Nebraska - 134,910 acres in Iowa and 41,529 in Nebraska.

With a strict zero-tolerance policy, even the smallest speck of StarLink forces millers to reject the corn. Once found, contaminated corn generally must be shipped to an ethanol plant or a feedlot.

From October 2000 through March 2003, 237,930 lots of corn were tested for StarLink. Initially, about 1.2 percent of the tests were positive. Now positive results are showing up in only about .11 percent of all tests. The tests are sensitive enough to detect StarLink in one kernel out of 2,400. "We're finding it in about three tests a week now," Bair said. "It's getting down there to a very small amount, but these tests are sensitive enough to pick it up."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to find higher levels of StarLink in its tests than in those of the mills, but that's mainly because kernels sent to the USDA are suspected of being contaminated.

"We're down below 1 percent, but those are samples most likely to contain StarLink," said Jerry Redding, a USDA spokesman.