WASHINGTON -- The question of allergies arises frequentlyduring the debate over labeling. For some small but significantfraction of the population, foreign genes inserted into foodmight cause an allergic reaction. If so, for the allergy-prone,labels would serve as a warning that could save lives. Labelswould also simplify the job of the Centers for Disease Control.
This argument is usually raised without recourse to the facts.Unfortunately, "the allergy community does not have goodanswers," was the message that Steve Taylor, professor andhead of food science and technology at the University ofNebraska, delivered at the Institute for Science in Society's1993 Food Biotechnology Conference last week.
The issue raises high emotions among consumers, said Taylor."One group I have dealt with are those who are intenselyconcerned because they have food allergies or are parents ofchildren with food allergies. One woman said she had a "DM"degree -- for "desperate mother," he said.
This level of concern is not out of line. With a true food allergy,"the key hallmark is that the individual has very low or, forpractical purposes, non-existent tolerance," said Taylor. "Whileoftentimes the illness can be mild and self-limited, it can be life-threatening. Perhaps dozens die each year, but no one countsthe bodies, so we are not sure."
Among infants, said Taylor, the most common allergies are tomilk, eggs, soy, peanuts, wheat and tree nuts. Among adults,the worst culprits are peanuts, tree nuts, soy, fish andcrustacea. Any protein can be allergenic, although only aboutone in 10,000 are.
The overall prevalence of allergy falls as children get older,from 4-6 percent in infants, to 1-2 percent in young children,to less than 1 percent in adults, said Taylor. Although FDA hasaddressed the allergy issue, its policy is inadequate to dealwith the problem, said Taylor. The agency focuses oncommonly allergenic foods, rather than all allergenic foods,thereby missing about 10 percent of the problem, he added.
It is hard to blame FDA because the field of food allergy is sofull of uncertainties. Researchers have not even identified mostof the allergens in the food supply. In peanuts, the premiersource of food allergy, "only one or two allergens have beenidentified," said Taylor.
The entire list of known food allergens is only about 10 or 11compounds long, "and we don't know the allergenic epitopes ofthose," Taylor said.
As far as identifying allergic individuals, "Completely reliablescientific procedures do not exist."
To complicate matters, tinkering with crops might create newenvironmental allergens. "Will genetic transformation of cornlead to more corn pollen allergies?" Taylor asked rhetorically."I have no idea."
What does all this mean for labeling?
Labeling should be confined to foods where there is a realpossibility of allergic reaction, said Taylor. "It makes a greatdifference to individuals with allergies how those foods arelabeled," he said. "They don't care about eating biotechnology-derived foods as long as those will not cause them problems."Blanket labeling would only "make their problem harder,rather than easier to deal with."
In the future, biotechnology may solve much of the allergyproblem, said Taylor. "For the first time, we have a method foraltering the structure of proteins, so it may be possible to cloneallergens out of existence in commonly allergenic plants," hesaid.
-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor
(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.