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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Agriculture Department said on Friday it has deregulated a variety of corn genetically engineered to produce a common enzyme that speeds the breakdown of starch into sugar, a vital step in making ethanol.
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said Syngenta, the Swiss maker of the enzyme, called alpha-amylase, will create an advisory council and take other steps to alleviate concerns by foodmakers about the genetically engineered corn variety. Syngenta requested APHIS deregulate the corn variety in 2005.
"APHIS conducted a plant pest risk assessment and found this line of corn does not pose a plant pest risk, and should no longer be subject to regulation by APHIS," said Michael Gregoire, deputy administrator for APHIS' biotechnology regulatory services.
Several groups, including the North American Millers' Association, the Center for Food Safety and Union of Concerned Scientists, said USDA failed to adequately consider the impact the genetically modified corn crop would have on human health, the environment, or the livelihood of farmers.
The controversial decision to fully deregulate the corn is the latest move in the last month by the USDA to ease restrictions on genetically modified crops. USDA said on January 27 that farmers could plant genetically altered alfalfa without any restrictions, and a week later it partially deregulated biotech sugar beets.
This "is a precedent-setting application if there ever was one," said Margaret Mellon, the director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists
"It says they are simply going to be approved without regard to what damage they might do to our environment, or to our economy," she added.
Ethanol makers could save money on energy costs by using corn containing amylase, an enzyme that helps break down starch in corn kernels.
But foodmakers and food safety groups say products such as corn chips or breakfast cereal could be damaged if made from corn containing even small amounts of amylase.
The amylase corn is aimed for sale to ethanol makers. Syngenta says it will take steps to prevent mixing of the specialty corn with regular field corn.
The Food and Drug Administration approved amylase corn as safe for human consumption in August 2007.
The National Corn Growers Association said it welcomed the decision by the USDA, and said the specialty corn would be the latest tool for growers and food processors to use to meet growing food, feed and fuel needs around the world.
"The potential importance of output traits to growers and industry will only increase as other output traits are developed," said Bart Schott, NCGA's president.
NCGA said corn amylase already is approved in Japan, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
Editing by David Gregorio