Taco Terrorism

A coalition of anti-biotech groups demanded this week that Taco Bell taco shells "be immediately removed from grocery shelves across the country."

The coalition, Genetically Engineered Food Alert, claims independent testing found in a sample of taco shells "a form of genetically engineered corn not approved for direct human consumption" and claims the corn contains a potential allergen that could cause nausea and anaphylactic shock.

Although Kraft Foods has recalled the taco shells, there's no need to panic. The science underlying the claims and the track record of the anti-biotech groups will leave you more inclined to believe that Taco Bell's Chihuahua really can talk.

Genetic ID, a testing laboratory, reportedly found that 1 percent of the corn protein DNA in a sample of Taco Bell taco shells was from StarLink corn — a little-used variety of genetically engineered corn grown for animal feed. StarLink has not been approved for human consumption because it contains a protein, known as "CRY9C," that may or may not be an allergen.

The concern about CRY9C stems from laboratory experiments reporting the protein digests more slowly in a "simulated gastric environment" — minutes rather than seconds. Such resistance to digestion is sometimes, but not always, correlated with allergenic activity, according to food allergen experts. CRY9C is not otherwise known to be an allergen.

Experts doubt that CRY9C is an allergen because it isn't derived from a source containing any known allergens, its protein sequence does not resemble other known allergens and none of the other biotech corn proteins are allergens.

Unfortunately for Genetic ID and Genetically Engineered Food Alert, this "firm possibility of a definite maybe" for CRY9C's potential as an allergen is the most compelling part of their scare.

Regardless of CRY9C's allergenic potential, the protein is not likely to become a human allergen because humans have not been, and will not be, significantly exposed to StarLink corn — even allowing for the possibility of a small amount inadvertently appearing in human food.

Before an allergic reaction can occur, a person who is genetically predisposed to food allergies must consume a sufficient — not just any — amount of an allergen. During digestion, the susceptible person's body produces antibodies to the food allergen — but there is no allergic reaction upon initial exposure.

It would take another subsequent exposure — at least weeks, if not months later — before enough antibodies exist to trigger an actual allergic reaction.

Since StarLink is not used in human foodstuffs — no one knows how StarLink could have made it into the taco shells — significant and continuing human exposure is unlikely. No CRY9C was reported in the 22 other corn products tested, including corn flakes.

Even if subsequent exposures to StarLink occurred, they would be at very low levels — only 1 percent of the corn protein DNA in the taco shells allegedly was from CRY9C. Even known allergens — which CRY9C is not — usually don't represent a health risk when present at levels at 1 percent or less of total protein, according to food allergist Dr. Steve Taylor of the University of Nebraska.

So why the hype about finding a little StarLink corn in the taco shells? You be the judge.

Genetic ID is run by John Fagan, a professor at the Maharishi International University and avowed opponent of genetic engineering. The university, founded by Transcendental Mediation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, advocates "high quality of life in harmony with natural law" — a system of beliefs that rejects genetic engineering as violating "natural law." Fagan has called for a 50-year ban on the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment.

But Fagan takes biotech opposition to a new level of cynicism. Fagan may oppose biotechnology, but he also intends to profit from it in the meantime. Genetic ID developed a certification system for testing foods for biotech ingredients and urged the Food and Drug Administration to adopt the system for labeling biotech foods.

Such labeling, doubling as a strategy for scaring consumers away from biotech foods, would provide genetic testing firms like Fagan's with windfall profits.

And then there's Genetically Engineered Food Alert, whose members include Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, National Environmental Trust, Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network North America and the Ralph Nader-inspired state Public Interest Research Groups.

Most of these groups participate in another anti-biotech coalition called the Turning Point Project, known for its full-page advertisements in The New York Times railing against genetic engineering, "industrial agriculture," economic globalization and "technomania."

The first of these ads featured a shocking picture of a mouse with what looked like a human ear attached to its back. The caption indicated the mouse was an example of genetic engineering. The ad asked, "Who appointed the biotech industry as Gods of the 21st century? So far, there exist no half-human, half-animal 'chimeras' (like mermaids or centaurs) but we may soon have them."

Dramatic language, indeed. But in reality, the mouse with the attached human ear had nothing to do with genetic engineering. A template in the shape of a human ear was seeded with human cartilage cells and surgically implanted on the back of a mouse. The cells eventually grew into the structure resembling a child's ear. This "tissue engineering" may one day help children who are either born without ears or who lose their ears through injury.

The bottom line: Anti-biotech groups appear willing to say and do anything to advance their agenda.

Yo quiero science, not terrorism.

— Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of Junkscience.com.