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Study raises doubt about allergy to genetically engineered corn

(Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Andrew Pollack, NY Times, 11/10/03: Remember StarLink corn? Three years ago this genetically engineered corn was found in taco shells and other foods, even though it had not been approved for human consumption.

The discovery prompted food recalls and disrupted farm exports. Dozens of consumers claimed they had suffered potentially dangerous allergic reactions after eating food thought to contain the corn.

But a paper appearing today in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reports that one vocal consumer who complained about allergic reactions turns out not to have been allergic to StarLink corn after all.

The report casts further doubt on whether StarLink caused allergies, and it is likely to buttress contentions long made by biotechnology supporters that the dangers of StarLink were overblown.

The journal article discusses the allergy testing of a 58-year-old man at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center who had complained of at least three allergic reactions to StarLink. The paper does not identify the man, and the authors declined to comment, citing medical confidentiality. But Keith A. Finger, a Florida optometrist, said in an interview that he was the subject and that he had asked to be tested.

Dr. Finger, along with two others, sued the developer of StarLink and some food companies, winning a settlement in which the companies pledged to provide $6 million worth of food discount coupons. Dr. Finger said he received $10,000 because of the suit.

In the test, the subject was given StarLink corn, other corn and a placebo on different days, without him or the doctors knowing which was which. There was no sign of an allergic reaction on any day.

The test is the "gold standard" of food allergy testing, said Dr. Marc E. Rothenberg, a professor and allergy expert at the medical center and an author of the report.

The new evidence, he said, "supports the view that there was no problem in terms of allergy," although he said it would be better to test more people.

StarLink, developed by Aventis CropScience, contained a bacterial gene to make the plant pest-resistant. It was withdrawn from the market, even for its previously approved use as animal feed. StarLink Logistics, a company Aventis set up to handle legal claims, had no comment Friday.

But even the new results are not likely to lay the issue completely to rest. Scientists still cannot predict in many cases whether a genetically modified food will cause allergies. And Dr. Finger says he is still sure that he is allergic to StarLink.

"I'm glad they did the test," he said of the Cincinnati doctors. But he added, "I was really perplexed as to why nothing happened."