Rising Food Allergies: Are Genetically Engineered Foods to Blame?

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Watch a mom of four and food industry analyst face food allergies for the first time, “dig into the data” and learn that 1 in 17 kids have food allergies.

Saturday morning at the supermarket and a road train of shopping trolleys snakes its way up and down the fluorescent-lit aisles. Like fruit pickers of a bygone era, shoppers select the choicest fare from the array of items on offer. The clash of trolleys is drowned out only by the cacophony of bleeping checkout machines as the harvest is passed across their electronic eyes. 

In aisle three, Janine appears almost motionless, unaware of the chaos surrounding her. Holding a jar of “baby’s first” pureed chicken, she gently rocks the jar from left to right as her eyes scan over the impossibly small text. Little-Miss-14-months burbles away gleefully in the infant seat of the shopping-trolley as she intently watches her mother’s every move. “You’re obviously intent of finding something”, I inquire. Startled out of her concentration, Janine raises her head and gently smiles. “It’s for her” she says, motioning her eyes towards her daughter Emily. Janine leans her shoulder towards me with the jar’s label facing us. “I have to scrutinise the label on everything she eats”, she tells me. Janine lifts her eyes from the label to me. “She’s allergic to soy. It’s in everything!”

Little Emily’s plight is not unique. It’s estimated that 1 in 20 children suffer from food allergies and intolerances , especially during infancy or early childhood. Increasingly soy is one of the major allergens. With allergies on the rise, mothers are reading labels more than ever.

So why are we seeing a dramatic increase in allergies? Some health experts believe that it could be, in part, due to the recent introduction of genetically modified (GM) foods. If evidence from around the world is anything to go by, there may be a case to answer.

In 1999, the York Laboratory in the U.K tested 4,500 people for allergies reactions and sensitivities. In previous years soy had affected 10% of consumers. In 1999, that figure skyrocketed 50%  after GM soy from the U.S started to arrive in the U.K provoking public angst over GM foods. When massive protests followed, supermarkets started removing GM foods from sale and the rapid increase in anaphylaxis in children aged 0-14 stabilised.

But why should GM foods be implicated in the rise in allergies? GM critics believe that the inherent cross-species nature of biotechnology may be responsible. GM foods are created by splicing genes from the DNA of one organism into the DNA of another possibly unrelated organism. In experiments, strawberries have been spliced with fish genes, rice and tobacco with human genes and even lettuce with rat genes. Since genes are the instruction codes for proteins, and proteins are implicated in allergic reactions, GM foods may be introducing allergenic proteins into our food that have never before been part of the human food supply. 

The litany of allergenic reactions to GM foods grows daily. A gene from a Brazil nut was inserted into soybeans with tests verifying that people allergic to Brazil nuts were allergic to the GM soybean . A GM corn, considered allergenic by the U.S EPA was approved as animal feed, yet it contaminated the human food supply and thousands reported health effects, some life-threatening . A GM pea produced by the CSIRO induced an allergic-type inflammatory response in mice, yet the same protein when produced naturally in beans, had no effect .

Alarmed by the growing evidence of health issues associated with GM food, consumer advocacy group MADGE (Mothers Are Demystifying Genetic Engineering) wanted to investigate further to see how our food regulator, FSANZ, assessed the safety of GM foods. Their findings raise grave concerns.

When MADGE undertook a study of the assessment process, they were alarmed to note first of all that it was only an assessment . FSANZ does not do any actual testing of GM foods. There are no scientists and labs, merely a government department of bureaucrats performing a paper-based assessment. That in itself is a major process flaw used to determine the safety or otherwise of a novel food technology that has been described as the most profound change to our food since the dawn of agriculture over 10,000 years ago.

What was even more disturbing for MADGE was the realisation that FSANZ accepts safety test data from the very biotechnology companies seeking GM product approval. MADGE founding member Fran Murrell asks, “Would we be happy to accept the say so of tobacco companies on the safety of cigarettes? Clearly there is a profound conflict of interest here where FSANZ is placing corporate profits ahead of public health.” 

With the allergenic potential of GM foods a high concern, MADGE researchers collected data on trends of hospital admissions for anaphylactic shock in Australia from 1993 to 2005 and compared it to data relating to the approval of GM crops in Australia from the same period. When the two sets of data were superimposed on each other, MADGE was surprised to find an almost like-for-like pattern; the rise in anaphylactic shock admissions being mirrored almost exactly by the rate of approval of GM crops . In support of the GM link, MADGE’s Madeleine Love cites one study in the Australian Medical Journal which said there was little evidence to support an alternative cause for the sudden increase in allergies.  As a result, MADGE is demanding that possible GM links be urgently investigated. To date, under the weight of influence by the biotechnology industry, FSANZ has ignored such calls.

MADGE is not alone in their demands for stricter regulation GM foods in Australia. Dr. Judy Carman of the Institute of Health and Environment (IHER) in Adelaide, has been researching GM organisms and their health effects for years. With degrees in organic chemistry, a PhD in nutritional biochemistry and a Masters of Public Health, Dr. Carman is a rare academic voice willing to speak out about her deep concerns about GM foods. 

She too is critical of FSANZ’s approach to GM food approval and sees the weak regulatory regime as fundamentally flawed. “FSANZ does not require any long term animal feeding studies as part of the approval process, let alone human clinical trials. In contrast”, she notes, “a pharmaceutical drug would require full animal testing followed by the four phases of a clinical trial on people before it could be deemed as safe, even though it would be ingested by far fewer people than a GM crop”.  

With a growing body of evidence of concern, where does this leave parents concerned about the effects of GM foods not only on themselves, but on their children? 

Unlike most food technologies including artificial flavours, colours and preservatives, GM foods are largely exempt from labelling. In fact, 48 of the 50 or so approved GM crops in Australia are exempt from any form of labelling including the entire harvest from this year’s maiden GM canola crop. 

This year’s GM canola will end up in margarines, baby foods, biscuits, vegetable oils, pastries and hundreds more other everyday grocery items totally unlabelled. FSANZ argues that labelling is unnecessary because GM canola oil is refined so much that there is no genetically modified DNA present after processing. But critics counter that that in itself is an assumption without any basis in fact and point out that people who are allergic to peanuts are also allergic to peanut oil, a highly refined product.

Consumers around the world are coming to the realisation that GM foods present the consumer with no benefits. On the contrary, they could cause dangerous allergic reactions especially in the young and the elderly. With a risk-benefit profile like that, most consumers are not prepared to gamble with their health nor the health of their families. But with Australia’s weak labelling laws, they may never know. Fran Murrell from MADGE implores us to consider this: “With most GM foods exempt from labelling, arguably our most fundamental right – the right to know what is in our food – is being denied.”

Watching Janine pass through the checkout aisle, I realised that Emily was likely to remain the bubbly and healthy baby that she now is, thanks to her mothers vigilance, but with the introduction of unlabelled GM foods I wondered how many thousands of other Janines and Emilys there were, unaware that the source of their allergies could be behind the very labels they’d come to rely on. 

  Food Standards Australia New Zealand – Allergy fact sheet.
  UK York Laboratory; Genetic Roulette; Jeffrey M. Smith; p50-51;
  Julie A Nordlee et al “Identification of a Brazil-Nut Allergen in Transgenic Soybeans”, N Engl J Med 334 (1996):688-92
  “Life threatening food?” CBSNews.com, quoting Marc Rothenberg, adviser to the U.S govt on investigation.
  V.E Prescott et al “Transgenic Expression of Bean r-Amylase Inhibitor in Peas Results in Altered Structure and Immunogenicity”, Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry (2005): 52
  “Safety assessment of GM foods”  Sect 4. (www.foodstandards.gov.au/_srcfiles/GM%20Foods_text_pp_final.pdf)
  “GM and allergies – a body of evidence” Mothers Are Demystifying GE – www.madge.org.au/health.php
  Chapter 5, “Recoding Nature: Critical Perpectives on Genetic Engineering”, edited by Richard Hindmarsh and Geoffrey Lawrence, University of New South Wales Press

Article first published in Insight magazine, April 2009. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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