UNITED NATIONS -- Consumer and agricultural watchdog groups yesterday accused a multinational corporation that produces genetically modified foods of failing to uphold a UN code of business conduct to which it had agreed.
The advocates called on the United Nations to consider ejecting the company, Strasbourg-based Aventis S.A., from its Global Compact - a group of corporations that pledged to abide by human rights and environmental norms less than a year ago.
The company makes genetically modified StarLink corn, which has been approved only for animal use but turned up last year in human foods, including taco shells. The discovery prompted a massive recall of corn-related products and touched off fears
about human health hazards.
"This company is in clear violation." said Gabrielle Flora of the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Food Policy, arguing the company failed to abide by the UN's environmental standards. "This erodes the credibility of the United Nations."
But UN officials said the Global Compact is a "learning forum" aimed at helping companies better their business practices - not a rigid set of guidelines.
"We've always made it clear that the Global Compact is not about assessing
companies or their performances," said Georg Kell, who oversees the issue for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The compact consists of nine principles that companies pledge to uphold.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a corporate official for Aventis CropScience, the subsidiary that made StarLink, noted that the majority of tainted corn came from its 1999 crop - before the company had signed the UN standards. StarLink corn has since been voluntarily withdrawn.
Yesterday's report by the Institute for Agriculture and Food Policy - posted by CorpWatch, a non-governmental association, on its Web site - revived questions raised by advocacy groups about the Global Compact. Some groups lobbied against the program, arguing it would give business undue influence over the United
Nations. But Annan and his staff have said it is a way to make corporations more responsible.
Under the compact, corporations are expected to report their compliance with its principles - or non-compliance - by this summer. Labor and advocacy groups will help review each submission, UN officials said.
Indeed, give-and-take on whether each company is complying with the norms is the whole idea of the program, advocates say.
"If companies sign up, they know they are going to be subject to public criticism," said William H. Luers, head of the United Nations Association of the United States. But he noted measures would have to be established to deal with companies that consistently violate the compact's principles.
The watchdog groups accused Aventis of failing to uphold Principle 7, which calls for a "precautionary approach to environmental challenges." They charged that the company, in its rush to sell the product, failed to fully analyze its environmental impact.
The genetically modified corn, which contains protein-producing bacteria that kill the corn borer, has been suspected of touching off serious allergic reactions. However, the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration said
yesterday that tests of people believed to be affected had revealed no evidence of allergic reactions.
The tests will be used by the Environmental Protection Agency to decide if small amounts of StarLink will be allowed in human food.
The advocacy groups also charged that Aventis had not fully informed farmers of the risks of the corn seed and had not recalled all the tainted corn, in violation of UN principles.
But a company official said that it was able to call back nearly all of the 2000 crop. Of 6 million bushels, all but 40,000 were located, the official said.
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