Myths of Voluntary Compliance: Lessons from the Starlink Corn Fiasco

58 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2003 Last revised: 4 Nov 2012

See all articles by Rebecca M. Bratspies

Rebecca M. Bratspies

City University of New York - School of Law


On September 18, 2000, a coalition of consumer and environmental groups detected DNA fragments from StarLink corn in Taco Bell taco shells sold in grocery stores. StarLink corn, a genetically modified (GM) variety of corn, had only been approved for use as animal feed, and not for human consumption. Overnight, this GMO became a Frankenfood posterchild - the incarnation of a genetic engineering critics' worst nightmares. By November of 2000, the FDA exercised its enforcement authority to recall nearly three hundred types of adulterated snack chips, corn flour, and other corn foods. The ensuing crisis paralyzed an entire sector of American agriculture and food production, and badly shook consumer confidence. One company, with one genetically engineered crop, managed to contaminate food for millions of households and brought an international commodities market to a standstill. This Article explores the StarLink crisis in some detail to understand how things went so disastrously awry.

After a detailed analysis of the regulatory approval process that vetted StarLink corn, the paper uses StarLink corn to explore the structural flaws in this process and to draw lessons about how market forces can support or undercut regulatory regimes. Ultimately, the paper suggests that the deficiencies highlighted by the StarLink fiasco are part of a broader ideological struggle over the proper role of government in the marketplace. Claiming that StarLink corn experience undermined a cornerstone assumption of the United States' regulatory strategy: that voluntary self-policing can be a viable, long-term strategy for managing this revolution in agriculture, the paper proposes a new regulatory approach for agricultural biotechnology, one grounded in both science and in the realities of a market economy. This new approach is aimed at providing the regulatory oversight needed to ensure public health and safety, while still permitting an exploration of biotechnology's promise.

Keywords: GM crop, GMO. LMO, genetically modified, genetically modified organism, genetically engineered, genetic engineering, Starlink, Coordinated Framework, substantial equivalence, biotechnology, biopharming, administrative law, agriculture, biotechnology, FDA, USDA, EPA, ag-biotech, biotech

JEL Classification: K32, K23, Q18, Q16, L51, N5, O13

Suggested Citation

Bratspies, Rebecca M., Myths of Voluntary Compliance: Lessons from the Starlink Corn Fiasco. William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, Vol. 27, p. 593, 2003, Available at SSRN: or

Rebecca M. Bratspies (Contact Author)

City University of New York - School of Law ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

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