KANSAS CITY (B)--ConAgra Foods Inc.--one of the nation's biggest packaged foods companies--has temporarily ceased milling operations at an Atchison, KS, corn plant due to fears that it may have received StarLink corn, the Wall Street Journal reported Oct. 17. The genetically modified corn, which sparked a nationwide recall of taco shells, isn't approved for human consumption because regulators aren't sure it isn't a potential food allergen.

The Atchison plant--which is ConAgra's only corn mill--stopped processing corn on Oct. 11 and won't start shipping product again until the Omaha-based firm finishes cleaning out the facility and testing its inventory, ConAgra spokeswoman Karen Savinski said.

Savinski declined to explain why company officials think the mill might have been contaminated with Starlink corn.

"We are doing this as a precautionary measure," she said.

Savinski didn't disclose the names of products that contain corn flour from the Atchison mill. The ConAgra facility is the second U.S. mill to have its operations disrupted by the StarLink debacle. Azteca Milling's facility in Plainview, TX, stopped processing and shipping yellow corn flour in late September after taco shells made from Azteca corn flour for Kraft Foods Inc. tested positive for StarLink.

The Azteca mill also supplied ingredients to a sister company, Mission Foods Corp., Irving, TX, which used the flour to make taco shells for several supermarkets to sell under their private labels. Azteca and Mission Foods are U.S. units of Gruma SA, Mexico's biggest corn miller.

Safeway Inc., Pleasanton, CA, the nation's biggest supermarket chain, last week voluntarily recalled its house brand of taco shells, which were made by Mission Foods. Likewise, Food Lion Inc. of Salisbury, NC, and Shaw's Supermarkets Inc. of West Bridgewater, MA, announced Oct. 16 that they, too, are pulling their private-label taco shells from store shelves because the products were made by Mission Foods.

Federal registration for StarLink corn, which was only intended for use in the domestic ethanol and livestock feed sector, has been revoked, and Aventis CropScience has agreed to no longer sell the hybrid in the United States.

Aventis is now attempting to buy up all StarLink corn grown on the nation's cornfields, with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

More than 40% of the bio-engineered variety was planted in Iowa, but small StarLink fields are scattered across the entire United States, making any corn mill vulnerable to accidentally receiving a shipment of the grain, which looks exactly like conventional corn.

Sales data provided to Aventis by seed companies offering StarLink hybrids indicate that up to 322,065 acres of land may have been planted to StarLink by approximately 2,600 farmers in 29 states.

The hybrid--which contains genes from a bacterium that make it toxic to corn borers and other insect pests--has not been approved for human consumption because its DNA creates proteins that are chemically similar to known food allergens.

Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Inc., two of the nation's biggest corn processors, said Monday their mills are using new testing kits to scan corn being bought from farmers.

A spokesman for ADM, Decatur, IL, said during the past week the company has rejected a handful of the hundreds of loads of corn it has screened for StarLink.

Both companies said the operations of their corn mills haven't been disrupted.

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