Breakthrough in allergen testing and tracing could help food manufacturers

4 Aug 2023

Scientists have detailed an efficient method to detect six common allergenic foods as part of a project led by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The mass spectrometry (MS)‐based reference method was found to be capable of quantifying the six allergenic foods, cow's milk, hen's egg, peanut, hazelnut, almond and soybean from the egg, milk, almond and hazelnut used in chocolate.

Breakthrough in allergen testing and tracing could help food manufacturers
© AdobeStock/monticellllo

The report, entitled Detection and Quantification of Allergens in Foods and Minimum Eliciting Doses in Food-Allergic Individuals, is published in the EFSA Journal and also reveal details of an approach for harmonizing and integrating food data in allergic subjects, where data gaps were identified for allergenic foods.

“Mandatory labelling of allergenic food ingredients has helped allergic consumer manage their condition, but unintended allergens and precautionary allergen labels (PAL) continue to cause confusion for allergic consumers and the food industry alike,” said the report.

“Identifying doses of food protein that are safe for the majority of allergic consumers and test methods for their analysis are essential for evidence-based application of allergen labelling,” it added.

The researchers came from the University of Manchester, National Research Council of Italy (CNR-ISPA), and the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture.

Industry called upon to improve allergy labelling on food

The industry has been under scrutiny after a series of high profile cases that involved allergy-related deaths as a result of insufficient labelling of food products.

In 2016, a UK consumer died after consuming a Pret A Manger sandwich that was contaminated with sesame.

In another similar case back in 2015, a man based in the US, went into anaphylactic shock after eating a sandwich. The victim, who was also allergic to sesame, stated that the label did not list the allergen as one of the ingredients and filed a lawsuit against the sandwich chain.

Credit: © AdobeStock/dream@do© AdobeStock/dream@do

Confusion surrounding food labelling stems from the difficulty in detecting and quantifying unintended allergens coupled with regulatory labelling requirements that differ across regions and continents.

In Europe for example, sesame is one of 14 allergens that EU regulations stipulate must be listed in pre-packaged food products made off the premises.

But as these fast-food providers prepare their food every day in their own shop kitchens, the products are not considered ‘pre-packaged’ and thus do not require individual labelling with allergen or ingredient information.

No legal definition for vegan or plant-based ingredients

Findings from the study, which forms part of the ThRAll project that aims to better define minimum eliciting doses in food allergic individuals, is timely as the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) recently found almost two dozen foods labelled vegan contained traces of egg or milk.

Chief Executive of CTSI, John Herriman, said: “Our research reveals that many consumers mistakenly believe that when something is described as vegan or plant-based, it doesn’t contain any animal products. However, there is currently nothing in the law that requires this to be true.

“As well as causing confusion for consumers and businesses, the lack of legal definition could be exploited by unethical food businesses claiming foods are as vegan, when in fact they contain animal-derived products.”

Food firms call for clearer rules on food labelling

As a show of industry support, efforts to establish firm labelling rules culminated earlier this year as eleven of the UK’s leading food firms wrote an open letter calling for clearer rules on food labelling.

The letter, which was sent to senior ministers in the UK government, urged the country’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) to “make a clear decision on [allergen] thresholds and a strong recommendation to ministers.”

Credit: © AdobeStock/aetb© AdobeStock/aetb

The letter, which outlines requests from Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Greggs among others, adds: “This would provide sellers of food with an absolute definition of how much of a specific allergen pre-packed food could safely contain before being labelled as free of that allergen.

“Implementation would enable food producers to bring in consistent industry-standard testing and help keep the most allergic consumers safe and increase the choice of foods they can consume.”

The letter concludes: “We believe, taken together, these two actions could help save lives and build greater trust in the UK food industry for people with food allergies.”