Risks of allergic reactions to biotech proteins in foods: perception and reality


Samuel B. Lehrer
Tulane University School of Medicine
1700 Perdido St. (SL-57)
New Orleans
LA 70112


In recent years, significant attention has been paid to the use of biotechnology to improve the quality and quantity of the food supply due in part to the projected growth in the world population, plus limited options available for increasing the amount of land under cultivation. Alterations in the food supply induced by classical breeding and selection methods typically involve the movement of large portions of genomic DNA between different plant varieties to obtain the desired trait. This is in contrast to techniques of genetic engineering which allows the selection and transfers specific genes from one species to another. The primary allergy risk to consumers from genetically modified crops may be placed into one of three categories. The first represents the highest risk to the allergic consumer is the transfer of known allergen or cross-reacting allergen into a food crop. The second category, representing an intermediate risk to the consumer, is the potential for replacing the endogenous allergenicity of a genetically-modified crop. The last category involves expression of novel proteins that may become allergens in man and generally represents a relatively low risk to the consumer, although this possibility has received attention of late. In order to mitigate the three categories of potential allergy risk associated with biotech crops, all genes introduced into food crops undergo a series of tests designed to determine if the biotech protein exhibits properties of known food allergens. The result of this risk assessment process to date is that no biotech proteins in foods have been documented to cause allergic reactions. These results indicate that the current assessment process is robust, although as science of allergy and allergens evolves, new information and new technology should help further the assessment process for potential allergenicity.