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Japan to increase StarLink tests on US corn, but USDA officials question the numbers

(Monday, Jan. 6, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Dow Jones, 01/05/03: Japan will increase the amount of testing it does for StarLink corn in imports from the U.S. as a direct result of finding the banned genetically modified variety in a recent shipment, an official from Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare told OsterDowJones in a telephone interview Sunday.

Akira Miki, an assistant director for the ministry's grain inspection division, confirmed that 1,200 metric tons of corn in a 19,234-ton shipment was found to contain traces of StarLink, but the remaining 18,034 tons "tested negative," he said.

However, as a result of the positive test, Miki stressed, "We will increase the amount of sampling we do in 2003."

The ministry has been subjecting U.S. corn imports to random sampling for two years now since it was first discovered that StarLink, which was originally approved in the U.S. for non-food uses only, was found in food products here and in Japan. Miki said the amount of testing at Japanese ports had been declining, but that will now change.

News of the StarLink discovery in Japan came to the attention of U.S. traders on Friday, Dec. 27, and Japan officially notified the local U.S. Embassy shortly after. But due to New Year holiday celebration throughout the following week, officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (news - web sites) remained mostly in the dark.

As of Friday, Jan. 3, officials at USDA still believed that the U.S. shipment of corn from Harvest States, a division of CHS Cooperatives, was smaller than the 19,234 tons inspected by Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Miki confirmed Harvest States as the U.S. exporter and Mitsui & Co. Ltd. as the buyer.

One USDA official said Friday the department was working under the assumption that not all of that shipment was for the production of food in Japan, but Miki contradicted that, saying, "The total cargo was for food use."

USDA officials and Lani Jordon, a spokeswoman for Harvest States, said last week that the corn sent to Japan in this particular shipment was tested extensively for StarLink.

In September 2000, the discovery of StarLink in corn products sparked a nationwide recall in the U.S. due to fears the tainted food products may cause allergy problems. Reactions were similar in Japan when the genetically modified variety was found in food products there.

The USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration assisted Japan in setting up the system now in place for testing corn imports for StarLink, a product of Aventis CropScience.

Meanwhile, according to a Dow Jones story today... Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are looking into Japan's claim that it found StarLink, a banned genetically modified variety of corn, in a shipment from the U.S., but some data USDA already has conflict with information from Japan's government, according to a USDA official.

"The numbers don't add up," said the official, who asked not to be named. "We're sitting here scratching our heads."

Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced late last week that it was holding a 19,234-ton corn shipment from the U.S. because it found traces of StarLink in 1,200 tons of the cargo, according to officials at the USDA and Japanese representatives of the U.S. Grains Council.

The USDA official said the department is working on the assumption that the alleged StarLink discovery was made in a 13,000-to-13,500-ton lot of corn that was purchased for non-biotech food purposes from U.S. seller Harvest States, a division of CHS Cooperatives (X.CHA).

A USDA spokesman confirmed Monday that Mitsui & Co. Ltd. brought the shipment into Japan.

"Where's the rest of it? Where's the other 5,000, 6,000 tons from, in the 19,234 (tons)?" the USDA official said.

There was another 4,300-ton lot of corn in the same shipment to the Nagoya port, designated as "commercial" corn by Japan, according to USDA officials and Lani Jordon, a spokeswoman for Harvest States, but it remains unclear if that was included by Japanese authorities in their announcement.

Regardless, there is a conflict in what U.S. officials believe was shipped and how much Japan said they blocked.

"They claim it all came off the same boat," a USDA aide said, but stressed the possibility that "part of a shipment that was left in that elevator from a previous shipment" was mixed together with the shipment from Harvest States.

That possibility has the potential to take Harvest States off the hook, but not the U.S., because the biotech StarLink variety was grown only in the U.S.

"StarLink is banned totally (in Japan)," the USDA official said. "The only place you can get StarLink is in the United States."

And that's why the USDA's Grain Inspection, Packer and Stockyards Administration tests corn exports to Japan for StarLink. Both USDA officials and Jordan confirmed that the corn sent to Japan in this particular shipment was tested.

As to how StarLink could resurface long after farmers stopped planting it and after a campaign by Aventis CropSciences and the USDA to take it completely off the market, GIPSA Deputy Administrator Dave Shipman explained recently that while rare, StarLink does pop up from time to time in the U.S. and it is diverted for feed use.

"People are still testing for it and if they find anything positive, they are sending it in to feed channels like they did when the event first started," Shipman said. "We do carry (over) corn over from year to year."

Japan has done further testing beyond the 1,200-ton portion it says contained StarLink, according to Jordan, and no further positive results have been found, but further details will not likely be available until next week at the earliest because of ongoing holiday celebrations in Japan.

"We are looking into it to see if we can confirm what is going on,"Shipman said. "We do know that the Japanese government does sample and test for StarLink at destination, so we'll see what they have to say in terms of results."

Bill Tomson, OsterDowJones, (202) 646-0088, (703) 876-0306 btomson@osterdowjones.com