TCS Daily

Feed Me the Taco Bell Shells

By James Freeman - October 2, 2000 12:00 AM

If Kraft still has any recalled Taco Bell taco shells that haven't been destroyed, I'm prepared to eat them. In the interests of science, and for the purposes of investigating the effects of this latest alleged consumer threat, I'm willing to consume four or five of the taco shells, depending on my appetite. In addition, because it's crucial to establish the appropriate laboratory conditions for this clinical test, the shells must contain seasoned beef, lettuce, grated cheddar and a medium-hot, tomato-based sauce. I'll accept guacamole if the testing lab is unequipped with salsa. If, as the subject of this human clinical trial, I'm entitled to one side order, make it pintos-'n'-cheese.

That's right, I'm volunteering to eat taco shells that may contain bio-engineered corn, that may contain the notorious protein Cry9C, which comes from the dreaded Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium. This stuff is deadly to a moth larva called the European corn borer, but I just have a hunch that I'll survive. Kraft only has to give me a time and a place and I'll be there, ready to chow down.

Why am I so confident that I can eat of the forbidden shells and suffer only the standard indigestion enjoyed by all of us in the Taco Bell family of consumers? Well, Professor Bruce Chassy, Associate Director of the University of Illinois' Biotechnology Center, appears ready to take the plunge, too. Says Chassy in a recent email, "I will take all the [taco shells] they dispose of if they'll give them to me. I'm satisfied that they are as completely safe as anything in our food supply...The issue isn't one of food safety but regulatory compliance."

So what was the compliance problem? Well, the government has approved about 40 genetically-modified crops for use in the United States. All of them have been approved for use in animal feed. The one that ended up in the taco shells, Starlink Bt corn, is the only one that has not also been aproved for use in our food. Why not? Well, no one has proven that the protein in this corn won't give someone an allergic reaction. There's no evidence that the protein will hurt anyody either, but the government wants proof that it's safe.

It's hard to prove that something can never hurt anyone. Genes that are already known to cause reactions in some people, like the ones you find in peanuts, aren't used in genetically modified foods. And when scientists find out that a new protein can cause an allergic reaction, then it too is barred from use in such crops. The question is whether to keep foods out of our diet if we can't prove that they'll never cause a reaction in anyone.

Says Professor Robert Hollingworth of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at Michigan State University: "It seems to me that this is a hard risk to completely eliminate, but, strangely, it is one we take every day when a new plant variety, or even a new plant food type such as kiwi fruit or macadamia nuts, is put on the market. These may contain many proteins new to the human diet, yet no one expresses concern about allergy testing before we proceed. Also, one cannot help but note that even where foods contain allergens known to cause severe reactions and even deaths, they are still on the market (e.g. peanuts). So the concern over allergens in genetically engineered foods, taken in that context, seems way overblown."

Anti-technology zealots paint a picture of strange scientific creations with unknown dangers being let loose in our food supply. The truth is that we know more about genetically modified foods than many of the other things we eat, because the new crops have been so thoroughly studied and tested by the EPA, the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, private companies and academics. Most other foods never go through that process. Heck, if you really want to venture into unknown territory, try an herbal supplement or a stew of exotic, organically grown vegetables.

Henry Miller, a longtime official at the FDA and now a Senior Research Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, points out that we've all been eating genetically engineered foods for decades. They're known to farmers as "wide crosses," or as Miller describes them, "hybridizations in which genes are moved from one species or one genus to another to create a variety of plant that does not exist in nature...Plants that have undergone those slight but important alterations have been an integral part of European and American diets for decades; they include corn, wheat, oats, tomatoes, potatoes, black currants and pumpkins."

Miller says that the Bt corn is even better for you than the natural stuff. "The gene-spliced corn not only repels pests, but it also is less likely to contain Fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the insects. That, in turn, reduces the levels of the fungus' toxin, fumonisin, which is known to cause fatal diseases in horses and swine that eat infected corn, and esophageal cancer in humans."

Almost everyone I contacted said that when it comes to a real expert on the safety of genetically modified foods, Professor Steve Taylor of the University of Nebraska's Food Science and Technology Department is the man. Taylor is the past chairman of an international panel of scientists formed to develop a way to assess the safety of these foods. And like many other scientists in the field, he doubts that anyone was harmed by a taco shell. Says Taylor, "I must say that I was dismayed that a product was allowed on themarket for animal feed use when it had not been approved for human food use. I believe that was a mistake, however I do not believe there has been any risk to the public."

Well, that's good enough for me. I'm ready to munch on those recalled shells. And if Kraft will agree not to let all that good food go to waste, you're welcome to join me.

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