WASHINGTON - The government is investigating whether taco shells sold in stores under the Taco Bell name contain a variety of biotech corn that isn't approved for human consumption due to questions about whether it could cause allergic reactions.
The crop, which is genetically engineered to kill an insect, is grown on less than 1 percent of the total U.S. corn acreage and approved for use only in animal feed. But tests commissioned by an anti-biotech environmental group found traces of the corn in taco shells that had been purchased in suburban Washington.
Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration said they were looking into the finding and that FDA may have its own tests done. Kraft Foods Co., which made the taco shells, said it would consider a recall if further testing confirmed the initial results.
''Our concern, of course, is whether or not this product, which is registered for animal feed, is somehow illegally finding its way into food that people eat,'' said David Cohen, an EPA spokesman.
If the test results are correct, FDA officials said they would consider action to get it out of the food supply.
The corn at issue, which is produced by Aventis Corp. and goes under the trade name StarLink, is the only biotech crop that isn't approved for human consumption. It is one of several varieties of biotech corn that contains a bacterium gene that makes the plant toxic to the European corn borer.
A scientific panel that advises EPA was unable to decide this summer whether the protein in the corn, Cry9C, should be allowed in food. The protein has shown resistance to digestive juices and heat, signs that it might cause allergic reactions.
Aventis is required to have agreements with farmers to make sure that the corn is kept separate from grain that is approved for food use. The company could lose its license to market the crop if it violated EPA's restrictions.
Kraft made the taco shells at a plant in Mexico using corn meal purchased from a Texas mill, which in turn got the corn from farmers in five states, said Michael Mudd, the company's vice president for corporate affairs.
The ''highest priority right now is to confirm whether or not the protein is indeed present in our product,'' he said, adding that ''if a recall is judged to be the right course, that is something we will do immediately.''
Aventis officials denied any wrongdoing and questioned whether the test results were accurate. Anti-biotech activists said the finding showed that the government isn't regulating biotech crops adequately.
''It concerns me and should concern American consumers that this is a glimpse of things to come as genetically engineered products are rushed to store shelves without real mandatory safety testing and labeling programs in place,'' said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.
The taco shells were among 23 corn products that representatives of the Friends of the Earth submitted to Iowa-based Genetic ID Inc. for testing for the Cry9C protein. Three sets of tests, performed first in August, all found evidence of the protein in the taco shells. None of the other products, including corn flakes, tested positive.
''We used the most sophisticated checks and balances to verify our results and we've done it three times. We've very confident,'' said Jeffrey Smith, the Genetic ID's vice president.
EPA and biotech industry officials say that the company has made mistakes in the past in testing for gene-altered crops. Aventis officials said they take care to ensure farmers know that the biotech corn can't be put into food channels.
Farmers ''are generally very astute businessmen who act responsibly,'' said Aventis spokesman Rick Roundtree. ''On the other hand, mistakes can happen, but we've not seen evidence that that's been the case.''
The StarLink corn was grown on about 300,000 acres this year nationwide, or about 0.4 percent of the total corn acreage. About 73 million acres of corn are expected to be harvested this year, of which 20 million acres are of genetically engineered varieties.
On the Net: EPA: http://www.epa.gov
Genetically Engineered Food Alert: http://www.gefoodalert.com
Biotechnology Industry Organization: http://www.bio.org