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, in today’s 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 HiBred 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.
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.