Genetically modified crops (GM crops) offer potentially enormous benefits to both the developed and the developing world. By improving food quality, increasing harvest yields and reducing dependency on particular chemical pesticides, GM crops could bring us one step closer to eradicating famine and improving nutritional standards worldwide.
However, before they can be used to improve the lot of mankind, GM crops have to be rigorously scrutinised to ensure that they meet internationally approved safety standards. These standards cover a wide range of safety issues and are in force to ensure that a responsible approach is adopted by producers of GM crops and that consumers are confident that any genetically modified foods entering the food chain – either as fresh produce or following food processing – will not compromise their health.
Agriculture and farming practices are being increasingly impacted by the existence of GM crops. One of the concerns associated with their increasing commercial development and cultivation over the last 15 years or so relates to the possibility of creating transgenic plants which have the potential to produce new proteins which may be allergens.
It is becoming apparent that there is a global increase in the incidence of allergic reactions to foods, and although there is no proven link between this observation and the mounting incidence of GM crops in the food chain, it is essential that any newly expressed proteins are rigorously assessed for allergenic potential. The goal of the assessment process is to demonstrate that GM crops are ‘as-safe-as’ non-transgenic crops in the food supply. There is no single factor which is recognised as the identifier for protein allergenicity.
Consequently, a weight-of-evidence in silico approach which takes into account a variety of factors for an overall assessment of allergenic potential is adopted as recommended by the Codex Alimentarius Commission and endorsed by the European Food Safety Authority.
The assessment is based on existing knowledge of allergens including:
- the history of exposure and safety of the gene source
- protein structure (for example amino acid sequence identity to known human allergens)
- stability to pepsin digestion in vitro
- exposure estimates of new proteins to the gastrointestinal tract where absorption occurs (such as protein abundance in the crop and processing effects)
- specific IgE binding studies
- skin prick testing
As the assessment process develops additional concepts involving, for example, animal models or targeted sera screening, may also be incorporated but all new approaches must be thoroughly evaluated and validated before they can be used for predicting protein allergenicity.
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