Consumer Concern #2 - Allergenic properties

Potential for biotechnology products to be allergenic

Allergies are abnormal responses that some consumers have that involve unusual reactions of their immune systems to protein components of food. All allergens are proteins. But only a few of the many millions of proteins that occur in nature are allergens. For example, most people can eat peanuts, but some people are allergic to peanuts. This is because their immune system perceives one or more of the many proteins in peanuts as an allergen.

Researchers have demonstrated that you can potentially transfer an allergen by genetic engineering. One example of this was the transfer of a specific gene, from the Brazil-nut, into soybeans. Researchers hoped to increase the methionine content in soybeans by inserting a gene from Brazil nuts, that produced a protein with very high methionine residues. Through a series of experiments, researchers were able to determine that the protein selected from Brazil nuts was in fact a major allergen to humans (6).

In this video clip, Dr. Steve Taylor addresses the issue of allergenic properties in foods produced through biotechnology.

It is important to assess the allergenicity of each one of the proteins in genetically engineered foods. Industries, and governments worldwide are paying particular attention to the characteristics of traits that may cause allergic responses. Many industries, as demonstrated by the Brazil-nut incident, are committed to thorough safety assessments. The following four specific recommendations were suggested by the FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Biotechnology and Food Safety (7).

1.) Unless the transferred gene can be documented and coded as a non-allergen, the transfer of genes from commonly allergenic foods should be avoided.

2.) Products containing an allergen from transferred DNA should have clear identification in the market-place, or they should not be considered for marketing approval.

3.) Industries, governments, and organizations involved with the biotechnology food industry should be aware of guidelines and actions needed to be taken if a food contains new proteins that are determined to have allergenic characteristics.

4.) For proteins that are food allergens, researchers are encouraged to identify the specific protein and its characteristics.

See Biotechnology and Allergenicity lesson, it addresses food allergies, the mechanism of allergic reactions to food, testing of foods, and more!

Discussion Question:

What is an allergy, and why are consumers concerned about biotechnology and allergenicity?