Canada approves GM yeast that combats cancer compound

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Yeast

Environment Canada has approved the import and manufacture of a
genetically modified yeast variety that is designed to reduce the
levels of the carcinogen ethyl carbamate, a compound that can
naturally occur in fermented foods and beverages, such as wine,
beer and bread.

Developed by biotech firm First Venture Technologies, the propriety yeast claims to be able to reduce ethyl carbamate levels in red wine by up to 89 percent, and in bread by up to 54 percent.

"Canada is well known to have some of the strictest regulations for the import or manufacture of new substances anywhere. This approval is an important step in the global commercialization of our yeast products,"​ said the company's president and chief executive officer Howard Louie.

Environment Canada's endorsement of the environmental safety of the yeast follows the Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) status received from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in January 2006. The company said it hopes the new approval will greatly assist its marketing efforts.

First Venture Technologies is currently commercializing its platform yeast technology, which it has exclusively licensed from the University of British Columbia (UBC), and is developing the technology in partnership with UBC's Wine Research Centre.

Also known as urethane, ethyl carbamate, is formed during fermentation, distillation or storage, and can be present in widely consumed foods such as wine, distilled spirits, bread, yogurt and soy products.

For example, in wine production, yeast is used in a fermentation process to convert grape juice into wine, explains the company. Arginine, one of the most abundance amino acids in grape juice, is taken up by yeast as a nutrient and metabolized to produce urea. Urea then accumulates in the yeast cell until it reaches a critical concentration, at which point it is released into the wine. Urea spontaneously reacts with the alcohol in the wine to form ethyl carbamate. The chemical reaction between urea and ethanol is exponentially accelerated at elevated temperatures.

According to the firm, international monitoring of the component has been going on for 20 years by public health groups such as the FDA, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and the World Health Organization (WHO).

A joint Food and Agriculture Organisation and WHO scientific panel last year concluded that that ethyl carbamate is genotoxic and is a multisite carcinogen in all animal species tested. The chemical is considered to be a potential carcinogen in humans.

Europe's Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently called on regulators to send in any data on levels of ethyl carbamate and cyanides in foods and beverages. In particular

EFSA wants information on alcoholic beverages such as stone fruit brandies. EFSA plans to use the data in its assessment of the possible health risks posed by the two classes of chemicals.

If high levels are found, the risk assessment could lead to a regulatory pressure on food processors to change their techniques to reduce the chemicals in their products. The same fears about acrylamide and benzene, both by-products of processing or storage, spurred the industry to look at ways to change their processes in a bid to reduce the levels of those chemicals.

First Venture Technologies claims the use of its yeast variety is currently the most economically-viable solution to reduce or eliminate ethyl carbamate levels in wine and fortified spirits.

"Use of the new yeast strain requires no costly retooling or processing changes in the manufacturing and production. Total cost per liter is estimated at less than $.02. This is an extremely insignificant amount to the end user,"​ said the firm.

An international PCT patent application on this urea-degrading yeast technology has been filed. In addition, national jurisdictional patent filings have been made in 22 countries, including Europe.

The global market for wine, brandy and sake yeasts is estimated to be in excess of 12,000 metric tons of yeast, which is estimated to produce 30 billion liters of wine, brandy and sake. Current prices, depending on the specific strain of yeast, are in the range of $20 - $140 per kilogram. First Venture Technologies said its pricing for wine yeast strains targets the high end of this price scale.

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