Natural Foods Merchandiser

Optometrist Says Feds Turned Blind Eye To His StarLink Allergy

When an interviewer asked Keith Finger whether he was an activist out to rid the world of bioengineered corn, he replied that he was a registered Republican who'd voted for President George W. Bush—even though he'd rather have voted for Charlton Heston (head of the National Rifle Association)—and that he likes to kill the doe deer because its meat tastes better than the buck's. In other words, hell no.

The rumor that Finger was something other than a 57-year-old optometrist from Sebastian, Fla., began circulating last July after he showed a videotape of his "welted body" to an Environmental Protection Agency scientific panel convened in Arlington, Va., to hear public comments about StarLink corn in human food. (StarLink, which is approved for animal use, is genetically altered to contain a pesticide, Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, that makes corn lethal to pests.) Finger attended the meeting as an independent citizen and paid his own expenses. Earlier, he'd told the Wall Street Journal he intended to eat StarLink in front of the panel to show the members what would happen to his body. That comment apparently prompted an EPA official to ask Finger not to do that for his own safety, which was ironic, considering another government agency, the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, had decided, based on tests Finger called "bogus," that he couldn't possibly have an allergic reaction to StarLink.

Because of the EPA request, Finger's wife Frances shot a videotape that showed him grinding about 40 kernels of StarLink in water, testing it with special strips from Aventis CropScience (the corn's inventor) to show there was indeed StarLink in the mixture, and then eating a few bits from a teaspoon. The tape next showed the welts that developed on Finger's body three hours later. But those welts were nothing compared with the bloody-looking ones that got him involved with ridding StarLink from the human food chain in the first place.

Finger's problems with StarLink began in September of last year when his Nicaraguan-born wife served him homemade tortillas. There was nothing unusual about that; in the two years they'd been married, she'd made him enchiladas or tortillas nearly every day to the point where he'd added 18 pounds to his 5-foot-6-inch frame. But in less than an hour after eating them, he suffered a "horrible gastric attack, diarrhea and unbelievable itching," he said. "My eyes were swollen shut. I looked like I'd gone five rounds with Mike Tyson with my hands tied behind my back."

Four days later, Finger heard news accounts that a coalition of environmental and consumer groups had announced that DNA tests showed evidence of StarLink in Taco Bell taco shells made by Kraft Foods Inc. Soon afterward, Kraft pulled the product from grocery shelves after independent tests had shown StarLink corn had been mixed into flour in a mill in Texas. After hearing the Taco Bell news, Finger called the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Orlando to report what had happened to him. "The field agent said, 'We're not checking on beans and rice.' I told him [packaged, prepared] beans and rice have corn solids, and tortillas have corn starch—'that's not bananas'—but he blew me off," he said.

It wasn't until Finger discovered the environmental group Friends of the Earth—which he'd never heard of before—on the Internet that he got some action. Larry Bohlen, an executive with the organization, gave him the names of key people in the EPA and FDA, and presently the CDC "came down and drew my blood." Finger was one of 17 people who had blood drawn. The CDC's widely reported conclusion last June was that none of them was reacting to StarLink. "Anybody who's taken statistics knows that 17 isn't a good number," Finger said. And because, "It made me angry the government was just trying to cover up this crap," he decided to experiment on himself and show the results at the EPA meeting.

"Somebody asked me, 'Why do you beat your head against the nail in the wall until you're bloody?'" Finger said. "My response [was] 'Your whole life you beat your head against the wall, but when they put a nail in there, the idea is to remove it so you've just got the old wall." Not that Finger wasn't using his head in other ways. His undergraduate studies were in biochemistry and microbiology, and he was provided additional scientific evidence about StarLink from Friends of the Earth. "It's not that I'm a novice," he said.

In fact, late last July a Florida allergist tested Finger and concluded, in writing, that indeed he was allergic to StarLink. A few weeks later the same physician determined that Finger was not allergic to plain organic corn, nor did he have any other allergies. Finger said he's sending a letter to the CDC asking it—"tongue in cheek"—why it couldn't figure out the right tests when his local physician could.

You might expect that Finger opposes biotechnology. Actually, he doesn't, mostly because of volunteer work he's done in Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where he's dispensed free eye care and given out reading glasses under the aegis of the Lion's Club. "I've seen the need for more food in the world, and if we can produce more food with less pesticides safely, I'm all for it. It's just that when somebody suspects there is a safety problem, I expect our government to make sure corn like StarLink doesn't get into the food supply, regardless of big business."

To the dismay of both the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents big food processors, and Aventis, the EPA said it was doing just that. In late July the agency announced it would continue to forbid even trace amounts of StarLink in human foods. Aventis had requested that a certain tolerance level for StarLink be allowed as the 1999-2000 corn crop worked its way out of the human food system. "Some of the world's leading experts on allergenicity and food safety told us there was not enough data to conclude with reasonable certainty that there was an acceptable level of [StarLink corn] that people could eat," said Stephen Johnson, of the EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances.

At the same time, the panel of 16 agricultural experts who guided the EPA's decision said that earlier government testing—the kind performed on Finger—was inadequate. Among other things, the experts noted that neither infants nor children—who were most likely to be affected—were tested, and further suggested that the particular test used for processed foods might be unreliable. At least 20 people have come forward with complaints about allergic reactions to StarLink, said the FOE's Bohlen.

When—and whether—StarLink can be totally removed from human food seems uncertain. The Washington Post reported on July 28, "Aventis has been buying back StarLink corn, and corn commingled with StarLink, and virtually all is expected to be out of the food supply after the fall harvest." But Bohlen told NFM that "one-tenth of the entire corn supply is contaminated. There's still a background level [of StarLink] that would contaminate next year's seed. Or, the little amount of StarLink that's growing in the fields this year could be cross-pollinating with other seed corn." Bohlen also said he's heard it might take four years to remove StarLink from the human food supply. "But that was an industry figure. I've also heard it's unknown how long it will take. It's like the embers of a fire—hard to stop."

The Grocery Manufacturers of America said it was "disappointed" with the EPA decision. "The CDC studies were quite clear to us there was no link" that showed the corn was an allergen, said Peter Cleary, public policy spokesman for GMA. "Continued pressure for exhaustive testing will be passed on to the consumer. [Testing] is quite expensive and that leads to higher prices," he said. Aventis said in a statement, "We will continue to support the grain handlers and millers with their testing programs. We are proud of the progress we have made in containing StarLink corn."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 9/p. 1, 8-9

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