Food safety and human health

Risk factors. There are several areas of public concern with regard to potential human health risks of GM foods. These relate to understanding the potential of proteins and/or other molecules in GM foods to cause allergic reactions, to act as toxins or carcinogens and/or to cause food-intolerance reactions among the population. Methods of testing and evaluating these types of risks have been established for food and these are being applied to GM foods so as to detect any increased risks associated with particular foods (Lehrer, 2000).

A recent consultation between the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 'the Consultation was satisfied with the approach used to assess the safety of the genetically modified foods that have been approved for commercial use'. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also stated that 'we have seen no evidence that the bioengineered foods now on the market pose any human health concerns or that they are in any way less safe than crops produced through traditional breeding'.

Although no instances of harmful effects on human health have been documented from GM foods, that does not mean that risks do not exist as new foods are developed with novel characteristics. GM foods should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, using scientifically robust techniques, so as to ensure that the foods brought to market are safe for human consumption.

For example, any protein added to a food should be assessed for its potential allergenicity, whether it is added by genetic engineering or by manufacturing processes (Lehrer, 2000). Allergenicity can be raised in foods either by raising the level of a naturally occurring allergen (e.g. in groundnuts) or by introducing a new allergen. More than 90% of the food allergens that occur in 2% of adults and 4-6% of children are associated with eight food groups. These include Crustacea, eggs, fish, groundnuts, soybean, tree nuts and wheat. These foods merit close attention when examining GM foods for the potential for increased risk of allergenicity (Lehrer, 2000). There is also a need to assess the allergenic potential of unknown proteins, such as those produced by Bt genes in plants. It was the presence of a heat-tolerant Bt protein in Starlink maize that caused the US FDA to withhold approval for its use in human con sumption, as the FDA scientific advisory panel considered that this protein posed a moderate allergy risk.

Antibiotic resistance. There are also concerns about the risk that the antibiotic-resistance genes used as selectable markers in GM plants may transfer to microorganisms that are human pathogens, adding to the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance in human pathogens. This problem is the result of widespread use of antibiotics in human and animal health. WHO, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and FAO have assessed the antibiotic-resistance markers used in transgenic crops as being safe. The risk of transfer of an antibiotic marker from a GM food to a human pathogen is considered remote. Nevertheless, the use of these antibiotic markers is being phased out. Other selectable markers that can be removed from the plant in the development phase are replacing them (Escalar, 2001).

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