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Source: Excite (November 29, 2000)

Japan seeks details on U.S. StarLink illness cases

Updated 6:21 AM ET November 29, 2000

By Jae Hur

TOKYO, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Japan's Health Ministry said on Wednesday it was seeking more information from the U.S. authorities on news that some Americans claimed they became ill after eating food containing gene-spliced StarLink corn. "We are seeking more details on this news from the U.S. government, including the U.S. embassy in Tokyo and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration," the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry statement quoted a report on Reuters Web site and attached a printout of the story.

The Reuters report, quoting U.S. federal officials as saying 44 Americans had complained they became ill after eating food containing StarLink but that investigators may never be able to pinpoint whether the genetically modified maize was to blame.

The claims of illness were reported by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to a U.S. panel looking into potential allergies caused by StarLink.

Symptoms included rashes, diarrhoea, vomiting, itching and life-threatening shock attacks, said Dr Karl Klontz, an FDA epidemiologist. But unless a special laboratory test is developed, scientists may never pinpoint whether the gene-altered corn was to blame.

The panel is to submit recommendations to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by Friday.

StarLink, made by Franco-German biotech firm Aventis SA, has a special gene inserted in it to help the young corn plant fight destructive pests.

It was approved by U.S. regulators in 1998, but only for use in animal feed because of uncertainty as to whether it could cause allergic reactions in humans.

TEST TALK AT UNLOADING PORTS

"It is more than a shock," said a corn trader. "This news makes things worse, including tougher opposition from consumer groups, in the domestic market."

Market talk that Japan's Agriculture Ministry would conduct its own tests for StarLink in imported corn at unloading ports also caused waves in the local import industry, the single biggest buyer of U.S. corn, traders said.

But ministry officials played down such a move, saying they had carried out checks for unapproved genetically modified products since early this year.

Japanese buying of U.S. corn has dropped substantially since tests by a domestic consumer group last month revealed traces of StarLink in food and animal feed, prompting importers to scramble to find other supply sources.

"Under these circumstances, we cannot resume U.S. corn buying," said a trade house trader. "If traces of StarLink are detected in imported cargoes at the ports, what would we be able to do?

"We cannot use StarLink commingled corn for animal feed or ship it back because of the cost."

In Japan, StarLink is not even approved in animal feed.

Yet some traders doubted the market talk.

"I cannot believe it," said a senior industry source. "If it is true, it would mean double-checking a shipment at more cost as U.S. corn shipments to Japan must be tested before loading."

Any duplicated checks would also delay unloading of imported corn cargoes and boost import costs, he added.

Traders said early this week that importers had secured only one-third of their needs for first quarter shipment. By this time last year, they had covered almost all such needs.

Japan buys about one million tonnes of corn for food and another three million tonnes for animal feed each quarter, mostly from the United States.

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