Testing for Allergens in
Frankenfood Inadequate

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
June 12, 2002


BY: Tina Hesman

Scientists still cannot reliably predict whether new proteins in food could
cause allergies. And research to develop tests is underfunded and spread
among many government agencies.

Those assertions came Tuesday in a report issued by the Pew Initiative on
Food and Biotechnology. The study was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts,
which aims to promote a discussion about the future of biotechnology. Many
people oppose genetic engineering of food crops because of concern that the
process could introduce allergy-causing proteins into the food supply. That
worry was fueled by an incident in which corn not approved for human
consumption was found in taco shells.

The corn, called StarLink, was genetically engineered with a pesticide
protein that had characteristics of allergens found in foods such as peanuts
and milk.

Scientists from Aventis CropScience, the company that makes StarLink,
developed new tests to analyze the protein's potential to cause allergies.
But they failed to convince a panel of independent science advisers for the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the tests would accurately
demonstrate whether the protein is an allergen or not. As a result, the EPA
refused to allow any StarLink corn in human food.

Scientists have yet to develop such a definitive test, and research that
could lead to better predictions for the allergy-causing potential of new
biotechnology foods is lacking, the report found.

Last year the federal government spent only about $7 million to fund 33
research projects investigating food allergies, the report found. Most of
those projects focused on known allergens and didn't examine many
fundamental questions about how allergies develop. The projects were spread
between four government agencies - the National Institutes of Health, U.S.
Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention - with little coordination, the report

"While some of the projects recognized in this analysis are relevant to the
regulatory assessment of new biotechnology products, the sum total of the
effort is not adequate to improve sound, science-based regulatory decisions
on potential allergenicity," the report concludes.

The authors recommended cooperation between the federal agencies to develop
a research agenda that could better address lapses in knowledge about food

The StarLink episode was a $1 billion mistake, said Michael Rodemeyer,
executive director of the Pew Initiative. On Monday, a citizen's group in
Bolivia announced that it had found traces of StarLink in a shipment of food
aid from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Reporter Tina Hesman E-mail: thesman@post-dispatch.com Phone: 314-340-8325

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