WASHINGTON (DTN)--A federal judge approved on March 7 a $9 million dollar settlement between consumers and food companies that sold products containing an unapproved corn variety that slipped into the U.S. food chain some 18 months ago..

The class-action lawsuit involved StarLink corn, which was not to be used in food due to concern that it might cause allergic reactions.

Judge James Moran for the U.S. District Court of Northern Illinois approved the settlement order.

The companies named in the lawsuit were Kraft Foods Inc., the No. 1 North American food company, leading tortilla maker Mission Foods, Kellogg Co., the No. 2 cereal U.S. cereal maker, and Azteca Foods Inc.

Also named in the suit were Aventis CropScience, which engineered StarLink corn, and Garst Seed Co., which marketed StarLink corn seed.

A spokeswoman for Kraft Foods said the company is indemnified by Aventis and "will not have to pay costs associated with the settlement."

Officials from Kellogg, Garst, Azteca and Mission Foods were unavailable for comment.

The settlement called for $6 million in coupons to be placed on food packages made by the companies.

Moneys not distributed through the coupon program will be awarded to consumer-interest groups to protect against unapproved foods appearing on the grocery shelves. The other $3 million will be used to pay administrative and legal costs.

There are still several lawsuits, filed by farmers, pending against Aventis CropScience for loss of income brought on by lower corn prices and a decline in exports.

"Each time one of these cases pops up it's really an alert we ought to do something that ensures the integrity of the food product in the United States," said Clint Krislov, an attorney with the Chicago law firm Krislov and Associates who represented plaintiffs in the suit settled Thursday.

StarLink corn was detected in the U.S. food chain in September 2000, sparking a nationwide recall of more than 300 items such as taco shells from grocery shelves.

The corn was also found in exports to Japan, the No. 1 importer of U.S. corn, and South Korea, sparking a sharp decline in U.S. corn exports to both countries.

StarLink corn is spliced with a gene that is deadly to the corn borer insect that feeds on the U.S. corn crop, causing millions of dollars' worth of damage.

The corn variety was approved for use as animal feed, not for human consumption.

StarLink corn seeds were planted in less than 10,000 acres when introduced in 1998. U.S. plantings grew to 315,000 acres in 2000 but still constituted less than one percent of total corn seedings. Plantings were halted in the 2001 season.

A spokesman for Aventis CropScience said on Thursday that the company denies any liability for the claims made in the suit.

"Aventis CropScience...believes that the settlement is the best possible way to move forward," a spokesman said.

In January last year, Aventis CropScience entered into an agreement with 17 states to compensate farmers whose corn was tainted by the StarLink variety.

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