Corn Free: An Interview with Maine writer Caitlin Shetterly regarding her GMO corn protein allergy

Caitlin Shetterly is more than a writer from Portland. She’s a writer with a unique ailment who, in ELLE magazine’s August issue, used her communicative abilities to tell her story to a large audience.  In reading Shetterly’s feature, I was impressed with her personal tenacity in seeking relief from her ailment, and though happy she’s now found that, I was also disheartened to find out the source of her upsetting symptoms.

Shetterly wrote in her feature, “The Bad Seed: The Health Risks of Genetically Modified Corn,” that these “weird” symptoms affected her for years: “tight, achy pain that radiated through my body and caused me to hobble around…burning rashes that splashed across my cheeks and around my mouth…exhaustion; headaches; hands that froze into claws while I slept and hurt to uncurl in the morning; a constant head cold; nausea…severe insomnia.”

Shetterly visited numerous physicians, alternative practitioners, and specialists in search of a reason for her systemwide suffering.

After over three years of trying various methods to alleviate her symptoms, Shetterly’s physician referred her to allergist Dr. Paris Mansmann.

Mansmann, after consulting with Shetterly, voiced his suspicion that the root cause of her symptoms may be an allergy to a GMO corn protein. Though there is very little literature regarding the allergic potential of GMO corn proteins, there is a healthy bounty of information regarding the prevalence of GMO corn in the American food system. It’s fair to assume that corn is now ‘ingredient zero’ to food scientists.

Shetterly wrote, “…small changes in the DNA of the corn are expressed by the plant as proteins. It’s those proteins, Mansmann believes, that can act as allergens, providing a multisystemic disorder marked by the overproduction of a type of white blood cell called an eosinophil.”

Shetterly tested positive for eosinophils in her nasal mucous membrane, prompting Mansmann to advise her to “strip all corn, even that marked organic, from [her] diet,” she wrote, since “88 percent of corn, and 93 percent of soybeans, are the transgenic varieties.”

Mansmann’s suspicion required a massive lifestyle change for Shetterly and her family, as she was required to eliminate GMO corn and its derivatives from her diet and care regimen.  The shift in consumption, however, neatly coincided with a major reduction in Shetterly’s symptoms.

“The first thing I noticed was that my skin rashes began to dissipate. Then, slowly, my body stopped aching, and I could walk or even jog easily, for the first time in years,” wrote Shetterly.

She had increased energy levels, better sleep, and her head cold went away. Her hands also became less stiff. As the months passed, her wellbeing increased. When she cheated and consumed corn in some form or another, she experienced painful symptoms again.

Since that first meeting with Mansmann, Shetterly has spoken to numerous scientists and researchers regarding the potential for GMO corn proteins to act as allergens on the human body. In her feature, none of the individuals she interviewed confirmed her suspicions with anything more than a ‘maybe’ or ‘anything’s possible.’

Nowhere in her feature appeared quotes from sources resembling “I knew it all along” or “Eureka! You’ve got it.”

Shetterly conducted interviews with scientists that seemed to sympathize with her experience and her quotes read as plausible responses within a casual conversation.

For Shetterly’s personal account of her experience, read the ELLE piece here.

ELLE published “The Bad Seed” online on July 24, 2013, and within two weeks, writer Jon Entine published a blistering review of the feature on Slate.

Entine argued that Shetterly and ELLE were jumping on the conspiracy theory wagon, and that “The Bad Seed” did not abide by ethical journalism. He supported his argument by providing quotes from some of Shetterly’s sources, who claimed that Shetterly had quoted them out of context. He picked on Shetterly, ELLE, Mansmann, and even Michael Pollan (who he identified as a ‘foodie hero,’ rather than his actual job titles of writer, journalist, and professor of journalism at Columbia).

Entine did offer some vague condolences regarding Shetterly’s afflictions, but mostly designed his piece to read as her reputational slaughter.

According to Entine’s ‘About’ page on his website, he is “a journalist focusing on sustainability, science and public policy. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University, where he is the founding director of the Genetic Literacy Project. co-founder of ESG MediaMetrics, which advises corporations and NGOs on Environmental, Social, and Governance issues, and on brand reputation and strategic communications.”

According to the Genetic Literacy Project’s website (GLP), the GLP’s mission is to “explore the intersection of DNA research, media and policy to disentangle science from ideology.”

Entine is the author of several books, including Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People; Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It; Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health; Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics Is Undermining the Genetic Revolution in Agriculture; and others.

Regarding Shetterly’s sources, Entine said, “I talked to or exchanged emails with almost all of them. The feedback was consistent: Her article was variously described as ‘ridiculous’ and ‘absurd.’”

According to Entine, some of Shetterly’s sources claim that she misquoted them and were outraged at how she handled the feature.

ELLE responded within a day and defended their and Shetterly’s journalistic integrity, citing transcripts and fact-checking with sources as evidence that Shetterly published accurate quotes.

ELLE wrote, “After reviewing the work of Shetterly and ELLE’s fact-checker—who examined the transcripts of interviews with each source and/or confirmed their statements via email or by phone—we stand by our story.”

ELLE also called Entine out for not disclaiming his former relationship with Big Ag company Monsanto, who ELLE said Entine once listed as a ‘select client’ on his website.

Entine published another response on his Genetic Literacy Project site and, this time, there’s no question about what he really feels is going on with Shetterly.

Entine wrote, “A New Age allergist convinced her that she had been victimized by Monsanto, which developed the corn seed, and guided her in removing all corn from her diet. Like a cripple cured by the laying of hands, Shetterly is now forever grateful, and set out to evangelize her experience of salvation.”

In following the thread of these posts, I feel that Shetterly abided by journalistic ethics and that, if anything, the feature’s subtitle was the most GMO-condemning element of the whole piece. Having conducted interviews myself, I’ve confronted sources in the aftermath of publication who were miffed at how they appeared in print. Not a fly on the wall, I can’t testify as to how Shetterly’s interviews were conducted, but if ELLE stands by their story and confirms that they had fact-checked the piece, I consider that strong evidence.

And when it comes to the hot issue of GMOs, it puts scientists and researchers in a precarious position to speak out against Big Ag, especially if they don’t have iron-clad stats to back up any anti-GMO statements they may make. Unfortunately for some sources, they only see the weight of their words once they’re in ink.

In addition to individual perspectives regarding GMO corn, another large issue surfaces from Shetterly’s experience: the proliferation of corn into American foods and products. As unsettling as GMO foods may be to some consumers, a lack of biodiversity isn’t healthy either, for both our food system as a whole and the individual consumer. Finding out you’re allergic to onions is far different than a corn allergy diagnosis, because onions aren’t a major player in food science. Some say that corn, however, is in up to 25 percent of all our food.

Shetterly is now working on a book that is borne out of her ELLE magazine piece and which Putnam expects to publish in 2015. For this reason, Shetterly is declining interviews. However, I was able to sneak in a few questions to her about these very dramatic changes in her well-being, and how local farming has contributed to her family’s new eating lifestyle.

Jenna: Did elimination of GMO corn from your diet completely, mostly, or significantly improve your health?

Caitlin: Significantly – night and day.

Jenna: How did Mansmann come to the conclusion that you might suffer from an allergy to GMO corn? While the nasal passage test for eosinophils supported his theory, why did he suspect GMO corn over other possibilities?

Caitlin: You’d have to ask him. As I understand it, though, he has been seeing symptoms like mine in some segment of the population since GMO corn hit the air, so to speak. And he’s been developing this theory since then.

[A note from Jenna: I attempted to contact Mansmann at his Yarmouth office, but neither he or a member of his staff returned my call.]

Jenna: And what tests, if any, designated the allergic reaction to GMO corn, as opposed to corn (GMO or not)?

Caitlin: I never tested positive for an allergy to corn protein itself.

Jenna: Entine’s tone was obviously negative – and made it seem like you were merely spouting twisted quotes. Personally, I read your piece as a sincere message of hope for individuals that may be suffering from similar symptoms, and possibly even a “hey, yo” memo to the medical community that they should consider such possibilities. How does an allergy of this nature alter the “normality” of everyday life?

Caitlin: When a person is sick – and chronically sick – nothing is normal. I have to say, I felt a bit like Christina in the famous painting by Andrew Wyeth – everything I longed for seemed just out of reach. And I was at such a tender time in my life – my son was a baby, I’d just handed in a book, I had friends and a family and a husband I wanted to be close to – and yet I felt boxed in by this illness that was like a kind of private, inescapable jail.

Jenna: My husband and I play an unofficial game where we guess how many ingredients in any given processed food are corn. One memorable “heebie jeebies” moment was when we read the ingredient list of Jello’s Butterscotch Pudding. Corn, and its apparently valuable flexibility of form, is somehow manipulated into tasting like butterscotch and sweetened condensed milk – real foods/beverages that coat the palate with richness.

You mentioned toothpaste as a ‘surprise’ product that contained corn. Could you provide a couple other examples of ‘surprise’ foods and products?

Caitlin: Dish soap (we eat some bits of our dish soap, of course). Vitamins. Iodized salt (Anyone ever wonder why Morton Salt plunked down millions to defeat Prop 37 in California?)

Jenna: You mentioned in “The Bad Seed” that you have local farmers to thank for your family’s jettison of GMOs. How has the local food system enabled you and your family to pursue this different food lifestyle?

Caitlin: I think we’re uniquely poised in Maine – despite our rocky soil and long, cold winters – to sustain ourselves, if we want to. We have a vibrant and ambitious farming community, not to mention the incredible reach of MOFGA [Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association], which inspires organic growers around the globe. I was recently in New York City and I went to a farmer’s market and, although it was amazing – just in the sheer abundance alone – I have to say I think I get better quality and see more innovation here in Maine. I can, with some additions from the supermarket, come quite close to feeding my family pretty locally here and without GMOs – that is a gift. For that I am so grateful to my home state.

My family and I have been spending the last few weeks canning local peaches, making jams and chutneys, freezing broccoli and putting up tomatoes from our garden and from Freedom and Fishbowl Farms – two of my favorite local farms.

Jenna: What sort of public response did you receive after ELLE published “The Bad Seed?”

Caitlin: The response has been just amazing. I have not even begun to get back to all the people who have written such touching letters to me about their own health struggles. The truth is that many, many people don’t feel well day in and day out – and I believe, pretty strongly at this point, that our food will end up being a huge clue into how we will make ourselves well. What’s terrific is that we might have the cure right here at our fingertips – on our local farms – in Maine.

Now, let’s look to the horizon.

Readers have a unique opportunity to meet and greet many of Maine’s local farmers at this year’s Commonground Country Fair, scheduled for this weekend in Unity, Maine. The fair offers two pleasant farmer’s markets, dozens of educational sessions, keynote speeches, and a variety of demonstrations (note to fair newbies: check out the sheep dog demonstration).

Caitlin Shetterly, the author of Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home (Hyperion, 2011) and a freelance reporter, writer and contributing producer to National Public Radio, announced last week that she has a new book in the works that will expand on the Elle piece. For updates about the book, keep tabs on Shetterly via her Author Page on Facebook.

From her website: Shetterly writes regularly for The New York Times and has a column, “This Mom’s Life,” on Medium.com, from the creators of Blogger and Twitter, for whom she writes about “raising a family in a high stress, increasingly toxic and dangerous world.” She is a regular columnist for Oprah.com–her pieces for Oprah have been syndicated to CNN.com, Yahoo.com and the Huffington Post.

Jenna Beaulieu

About Jenna Beaulieu

Jenna is a writer who recently moved back home to the St. John Valley to settle down and nurture her roots. She’s a fan of excellent music, homemade gravy, and colored pencils (also, short books and long books, good pens, flannel, and when the June bugs don’t really come out much that year). For more about Jenna, visit her website at www.jennabeaulieu.com