New York Times, March 14, 1996

Genetic Engineering of Food Can Spread Serious

Allergies, Study Says


[W] ASHINGTON -- Researchers said Wednesday that

they had the first solid evidence that

proteins that can cause potentially serious

allergic reactions could be transferred to crops

through genetic engineering.

Scientists at the University of Nebraska at

Lincoln said tests proved that soybeans modified

with genes from Brazil nuts to produce a

nutritious protein found in the nuts also

produced proteins that set off a strong,

potentially deadly allergic reaction in people

sensitive to Brazil nuts. The finding confirms

early suspicions that transferring genes to food

plants posed such risks.

Critics of moving genes to food plants from

other plants, animals and organisms say the

research indicates that tighter regulation is

needed to protect the public. But proponents of

the technology and federal regulators say the

findings indicate that the current system of

mostly voluntary monitoring and reporting is

sufficient to guard the public against potential

risks from the food supply.

"The study shows that caution is needed, but

that we are on course as far as regulations go,"

said Dr. George H. Pauli of the Food and Drug

Administration's Center for Food Safety and

Applied Nutrition. "Industry is following our

guidance and essentially has been notifying us

about what it is doing regardless of whether it

is required or not."

But Dr. Rebecca J. Goldburg, senior scientist

with the Environmental Defense Fund, said the

study, published in the March 14 issue of the

New England Journal of Medicine, confirms

scientific fears about genetically engineered

crop plants causing allergic reactions.

"Since genetic engineers mix genes from a wide

array of species, other genetically engineered

foods may cause similar health problems," Dr.

Goldburg said. "People who are allergic to one

type of food may suddenly find they are allergic

to many more."

Dr. Steve L. Taylor, head of the Food Science

and Technology Department at Nebraska, and a

colleague, Julie A. Nordless, tested soybeans

developed by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, of

Johnson, Iowa, that included genes from Brazil

nuts to make proteins with the amino acid

methionine. Soybean proteins are deficient in

this essential nutrient.

The company, which had hoped to use the enhanced

soybeans as an improved animal feed, decided not

to market the product because of anticipated

difficulties in keeping soybeans designated for

animals from inadvertantly entering human food

supplies, said a company spokesman, Tim Martin.

"We knew we wanted to test these soybeans

because of the allergic potential, and we were

disappointed with the results," Martin said. "So

we decided to find other sources of methionine

for feed."

The Nebraska researchers used blood serum from

nine subjects known to have a Brazil nut allergy

and compared how it reacted with extracts from

Brazil nuts, conventional soybeans and the

modified, or transgenic, soybeans. All of the

samples reacted to the nut extracts. Eight of

the nine reacted strongly to extracts from the

genetically altered soybeans and none reacted to

the conventional soybeans.

In addition, Dr. Robert K. Bush of the

University of Wisconsin at Madison conducted

skin-prick tests on three subjects allergic to

Brazil nuts, the report said. All three had

positive reactions to extracts from nuts and the

transgenic soybeans, but none had an allergic

response to regular soybeans, it said.

"This is the first study to demonstrate the

transfer of an allergen from one food to another

through genetic engineering," Taylor said in a

telephone interview, "The fact that it happened

is not a total surprise, but our research shows

that it's not just a theoretical risk."

"The good news is that this shows we have tests

for these allergens that work, and we should use

them to make intelligent decisions about the

commercialization of new foods," Taylor

continued. "All genetically engineered foods and

plants should undergo extensive testing before

they are marketed."

In an editorial in the journal, Dr. Marion

Nestle of New York University said proof that

allergens can be transferred from food to food

make it more imperative that the government

reconsider regulation of the industry. FDA

guidelines currently do not apply to foods that

are rarely allergenic or to genes transferred

from bacteria, she said.

Food allergies have been confirmed in at least 2

percent of adults and 8 percent of children, she

said, and there is evidence that the prevalence

of food allergy and food sensitivity is

increasing as more proteins are added to

commercial foods.

"It is in everyone's best interest to develop

regulatory policies for transgenic foods that

include premarketing notification and labeling,"

Dr. Nestle said.

Pauli of the FDA and several food scientists

noted that while all allergens are proteins, the

vast majority of proteins are not allergens and

do not need special testing and regulation in


There is, however, a pressing need to develop

animal and laboratory tests that can confidently

predict what food proteins have allergic

potential, he said.

"Science does not have good, dependable tests

for allergens that are right all the time,"

Pauli said, "Until we do, we have to set our

regulations in an open-ended way and be prepared

to change them if we have to. We have told the

industry to be cautious and it appears that, so

far, they are following our guidance."

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company