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Wal-Mart to sell genetically modified sweet corn

CHICAGO — Rejecting entreaties from consumers and activists, Wal-Mart says it plans to sell a new crop of genetically modified sweet corn created by biotech giant Monsanto.

“After closely looking at both sides of the debate and collaborating with a number of respected food safety experts, we see no scientifically validated safety reasons to implement restrictions on this product,” the company confirmed to the Chicago Tribune.

Environmental and health activists expressed surprise and disappointment at Wal-Mart’s decision. Earlier this year, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and General Mills said they would not carry or use the genetically modified sweet corn.

“A lot of people who were their customers explicitly said we don’t want you to carry this product, and I think it’s unfortunate that they chose not listen to that feedback,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the consumer group Food and Water Watch.

In March, the group presented Wal-Mart with a petition signed by 463,000 people asking it to boycott the product, she said.

Monsanto’s genetically modified sweet corn is resistant to a common herbicide, which allows farmers to kill weeds without killing the corn. It also contains a toxin that fends off certain pests.

Monsanto on Thursday said that the corn, which is being harvested now in the Midwest and Northeast, will help reduce insecticide use in the U.S.

“Overall, sweet corn makes up less than 1 percent of total corn acreage in the United States … yet accounts for 40 percent of all corn insecticide treatments,” the company said in a statement. “Farmers who grow biotech sweet corn can reduce insecticide applications by as much as 85 percent.”

Critics say they would like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require some pre-market safety testing and labeling of genetically modified foods, saying the lack of study makes it impossible to know whether they pose health risks.

“There has been a doubling of food allergies in this country since 1996,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports. “Is it connected to genetically engineered foods? Who knows when you have no labeling? That is the problem.”

While genetically modified corn has been in American processed foods since the mid-’90s, Hansen said he worries that eating it straight off the cob could pose greater risks.

“Whatever the risks of (this technology), you would expect higher exposure eating a product such as sweet corn,” he said.

Wal-Mart said it will not label the genetically modified sweet corn it sells, but notes that customers can avoid products with such ingredients by choosing those marked as organic.

The company said it could not say whether it would sell any organic sweet corn at its stores this year.

Genetically modified ingredients, in which a gene from one species is transferred to another to bestow certain traits, are in an estimated 70 percent of all American processed foods.

In the U.S., 86 percent of all corn and 93 percent of soy crops are genetically modified.

Labeling of such foods is required in the European Union, China, Russia, Australia and Japan but not in the U.S. Although the FDA encourages companies to do safety studies, they are not required to do so.

This year the American Medical Association affirmed its stance that genetically modified foods do not need to be labeled but said they should undergo mandatory pre-market safety testing.