What if the food we ate fought allergies instead of causing them? A new form of rice can, researchers announced this week. But is it safe?

The breakthrough is a first-of-its-kind advance toward the next generation of genetically modified foods intended to improve consumers' health, the scientists in Japan said.

The new transgenic rice designed to fight a common pollen allergy appears safe in animal studies, the researchers report in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Fumio Takaiwa and colleagues note that the first generation of genetically-modified crops was designed to help keep crops free of weeds and bugs. The next generation of transgenic crops is being developed to directly benefit human health. This includes vegetables and grains that produce higher levels of nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, or even medicines and vaccines.

Like the first generation of transgenic foods, however, researchers are anxiously trying to determine whether foods produced from these "biopharmaceutical" crops will be safe for humans and the environment.

The rice plant has been genetically engineered to fight allergies to Japanese cedar pollen, a growing public health problem in Japan that affects about 20 percent of the population.

In laboratory studies, the researchers fed a steamed version of the transgenic rice and a non-transgenic version to a group of monkeys everyday for 26 weeks. At the end of the study period, the test animals did not show any health problems, in an initial demonstration that the allergy-fighting rice may be safe for consumption, the researchers say.

More research will be needed to bring the rice to market.