Whether genetically modified (GM) foods are adequately tested for allergy risk seems to depend on who we ask.
The central idea of genetic engineering is that by tinkering with the DNA (genetic code) of an organism, new characteristics, traits, or functions will be introduced into that organism.
There is an assumption that the genetically modified organism (GMO) will be the same as the non-modified original, except for the new trait introduced by the genetic engineer.
However, the results of genetic engineering, like life, tend to be a bit messy.
When genes artificially taken from one organism are added to a dissimilar organism - often the case in genetic modification - the transplanted genes can interact with the new organism and its environment in unexpected ways.
Looking into these unexpected interactions, some independent researchers* have concluded that genetic modification can create unpredictable, novel proteins in food. This is concerning since most food allergies are a reaction to food proteins.
Allergy Assessment of GM Foods
The researchers also state that although the public is told GM foods are thoroughly assessed for allergenicity (allergy risk), the absence of reliable testing methods, and questionable testing practices, makes this untrue. For instance:
- A protein being assessed for allergenicity is not always taken from the plant that is being genetically modified. Instead, the protein may be lifted from a different plant, or a bacterium that earlier received the same protein code. Since various plants and bacteria assimilate identical genetic material differently, the protein’s allergy risk potential can vary from one modified organism to another.
- New allergens created through genetic engineering cannot be detected by comparing it to the database of known allergens.
- Blood serum test detection is problematic. Unless the protein expressed in a new GM food is an already common allergen, there is unlikely to be even one sensitized person on the planet whose blood serum will react with it. Plus, blood serum tests are not helpful in detecting uncommon allergens - those that few people are allergic to - since serum samples are rarely taken from these individuals.
- Proteins that break into fragments in stomach acid are not considered an allergen threat. However, one study found the artificial stomach tests performed on GM proteins for regulatory purposes had the acidity levels set unrealistically high—much higher than that of the human stomach.
The only reliable assessment of a GM food’s allergenicity, prior putting the item on a grocery store shelf, would be to test the food on many volunteers, say about 5,000 of them. This seems an unlikely event.
Safe or Not?
An alternative allergy safeguard would be post-commercialization monitoring, where consumers would be asked to report any adverse effects after eating a GM food. This would require consumers to know when they are partaking of new GM foods, but the clear labeling of GM items is not something manufacturers want.
GM food producers assert that the products are safe so labeling is unnecessary. You can read the reasons behind their safety assurances at sites such as GMO Compass (gmo-compass.org).
Yet, independent researchers keep poking holes in GM food safety assurances, concluding that with the current means of assessment, and a lack of rigor in testing methods, no one can predict whether a GM food will be allergenic. Further, should a GM product turn out to be an allergen, it would be nearly impossible to find out, since no post-commercialization monitoring is done, anywhere.
Source: GMO Myths and Truths Photo credit: Dag Terje Filip Endresen
*Independent researchers: John Fagan, Ph.D., Michael Antoniou, Ph.D., Claire Robinson, MPhil.