PLEASANTON, Calif. -- Safeway here last week recalled its private-label taco shells when it was revealed they may include the same unapproved corn ingredient found weeks before in Kraft Food's Taco Bell brand shells.
The second supermarket taco-shell recall in as many weeks prompted some food-safety advocates to call for more stringent testing and/or the removal of all genetically modified foods from supermarkets, and caused private-label sourcing concerns among retailers and manufacturers, including the threat of additional taco-shell scares.
The ingredient in question, genetically engineered StarLink corn, contains a bacterial toxin that kills insects. StarLink was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use as animal feed but not for human consumption. The corn could cause allergic reactions and other health risks, sources said.
Brian Dowling, Safeway spokesman, told SN, "The thing that we found surprising was that after the Kraft incident we asked our supplier if there was any reason to be concerned, and we were told there wasn't a problem. We got that in writing."
Both Kraft, and Safeway's taco-shell manufacturer, Mission Foods, Dallas, sourced their corn products at the same Plainview, Texas, mill, operated by Azteca Milling, sources told SN. Mission Foods began testing its own products last week, a process Kraft initiated weeks ago. Mission Foods is now shipping taco shells manufactured with products purchased from facilities outside of Texas, according to Peter Pitts, a company spokesman.
Both Azteca and Mission are subsidiaries of the Mexican company Gruma.
Mission, whose Mission brand taco shells were also pulled by Safeway, manufactures private-label taco shells for other retailers as well, Pitts told SN. Pitts, however, declined to say how many, or identify any by name. He also declined to comment on the possibility that other retailers had purchased private-label taco shells containing the StarLink corn.
"I wouldn't want to speculate on anything until we are done testing the products ourselves," said Pitts. "I think we'll learn more then."
Sarah Wright, a spokeswoman for Irving, Texas-based Azteca, told SN that it is holding stock of all its yellow corn flour at its Plainview facility and has begun testing for StarLink corn at all its facilities. She said Azteca "has not drawn any conclusions" on how the StarLink corn became mixed with its food supply.
Both Kraft and Safeway taco shells were found to have the StarLink corn by Genetic ID, a Fairfield, Iowa-based food testing company. Genetic ID did the testing at the request of a coalition of advocacy groups led by Washington, D.C.-based Friends of the Earth.
Groups including Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety told SN the results prove the need for additional GMO regulation and mandatory product labeling by the Food and Drug Administration, but their claims were challenged by such groups as the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
"What this demonstrates is that the FDA's policy of no testing and no labeling doesn't work," said Andrew Krimbell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "I realize that food companies would prefer to have as little regulation as possible, but right now the retailers, restaurants and companies like Kraft are taking it on the chin every time a scandal like this comes up. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg."
But food-industry insiders said mandatory pre-market testing and labeling would not have made a difference in this case, since the StarLink corn was already tested by the FDA and was evidently sold to suppliers by mistake.
"This was an accident in which animal feed got mixed with the food supply," said Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the GMA, Washington, D.C. "Even with pre-market testing and labeling in place, it wouldn't have affected anything."
Grabowski added that the groups were "trying to stop biotech by creating public hysteria."
Mark Helm, spokesman for Friends of the Earth, told SN he felt supermarkets should pull all genetically modified products.
"The smart thing for Safeway to do is just go GE-free, and say to their customers, 'Look, we realize there are potential problems with this, and we're not going to put you in danger."'
Safeway has come under scrutiny by anti-GMO groups before, including some who demonstrated at the company's annual meeting earlier this year. At the meeting, shareholders voted down a request by a group of minority shareholders to drop genetically modified foods.
Deborah White, regulatory counsel for FMI, Washington, said that retailers, manufacturers and wholesalers should be careful with whom they do business. "Companies should get to know their suppliers and ask for assurances that the products they are buying are safe," she said.
At a news conference last week, Friends of the Earth presented sales flyers from Washington-area Safeway and Giant Food stores, advertising the same Taco Bell shells recalled two weeks before. However, a spokeswoman for Giant, an Ahold-owned operating company based in Landover, Md., told SN the flyers were printed before the recall and that the product was not currently on shelves.