updated 2/16/2005 9:32:45 PM ET 2005-02-17T02:32:45

Environmental groups said Wednesday they have discovered that genetically modified corn never approved for human consumption is being handed out as U.N. food aid to Guatemala.

A study backed by the international group Friends of the Earth found that samples of World Food Program grain shipments included StarLink, a corn withdrawn from the market in the United States because of concerns it could provoke allergic reactions.

Discovery of StarLink corn in consumer products in the United States prompted several high-profile supermarket recalls of cornmeal, corn dogs, taco shells, soup and chili mixes in 2000 and 2001.

The grain sent to Guatemala was intended for human consumption in products like tortillas, members of the Central American Alliance in Defense of Biodiversity said at a news conference in Guatemala.

A spokeswoman for Guatemala’s Agriculture Ministry, Maria del Carmen Fuentes, said she was unaware of the study, but added, “We are worried in any case, and an expert in the area will be assigned to indicate as soon as possible what happened.”

She insisted, however, that “at no moment would we harm the population.”

USDA spokesman: ‘We have never had an incident’
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ed Loyd, said the United States requires that any food aid be tested to make sure it doesn’t contain StarLink.

“We have never had an incident in which there has been a positive test for any food aid shipment,” he said.

In Rome, World Food Program spokeswoman Anthea Web said the decision on accepting foods “rests with the host government.”

Aventis CropScience stopped sales of Starlink in 2000 because of still-unresolved questions about whether it could cause allergic reactions.

In 2001, StarLink’s owners agreed to compensate U.S. corn farmers for lost sales caused by the discovery of StarLink in the nation’s food chain. More than $100 million was paid.

The company said Wednesday that small amounts of StarLink genetic material may still be detectable.

StarLink Logistics says on its Internet site that it is working to direct any remaining corn containing the questioned protein to animal feed and nonfood uses.

Earlier complaints about food aid
Friends of the Earth complained in 2002 that it had found StarLink corn in U.S. aid shipments to Bolivia.

The allegations regarding Starlink were part of a broader protest about genetically modified corn being included in food aid shipments to the Central America.

In addition to Guatemala, news conferences were held in El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica. Environmentalists cited a study that looked at 77 samples of imported corn included in aid shipments or sold on the open market. Eighty percent was reported to include genetically modified material.

Activists criticized the find, saying genetically modified corn shouldn’t be used, arguing it is a risk to health and to the environment.

Opponents note that in Mexico, modified corn kernels imported as food were planted by some farmers, causing what some experts have described as genetic contamination of local corn varieties.

Backers say modified produce provides more and cheaper food to the world and say no health risks have been proven.

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