New York Times, March 14, 1996
Genetic Engineering of Food Can Spread Serious
Allergies, Study Says
By WARREN E. LEARY
[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
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
"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