Scientists at Florida State university have discovered sensitive "marker proteins" that can be used to detect trace amounts of nuts - notably walnuts, cashews and almonds - in processed foods.
An estimated 4 per cent of adults and 8 per cent of children in the European Union - the total population tops 380 million - suffer from food allergies, according to the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations.
Professors Shridhar Sathe and Kenneth H. Roux in Florida together with professor Suzanne S. Teuber at the University of California, Davis identified 'reliable markers' for the detection of trace amounts of nuts that, they claim, could contribute to more accurate food labelling.
In previous studies, the team identified specific proteins relevant to human allergies: almond major protein (AMP), cashew major protein (CMP) and walnut glutelin (WG). They then tried to change these proteins and reduce the allergic potential of the nuts by subjecting them to gamma radiation and thermal processing.
"The allergens did not change, but the study proved that the new tests could still detect allergen traces in both raw and processed nuts,"
said the scientists in a statement, while Professor Sathe warned that work was still required.
"The development of specific, reliable, sensitive and accurate tests for allergy-related proteins has significant implications for the food industry and for consumers who daily rely on accurate labelling. Therefore continued and vigorous research in developing such assays is urgently warranted," he commented.
Welcomed by allergy associations, last year Europe confronted the food industry with new rules - to enter into force in November 2004 - on food allergen ingredients when Brussels cleared Directive 2003/89/EC, amending Directive 2000/13. Food manufacturers will have to list all sub-ingredients of compound ingredients, which means that allergens cannot be 'hidden', heralding an end to the 20 year old 25 per cent rule with all ingredients labelled, regardless of the quantity contained in the finished food.
"We are very pleased with the new rules," Susanna Palkonen of the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations told FoodNavigator.com at the time. Lobbying the Commission hard for the changes, the allergy alliance sees the amendments as a victory but remains concerned about the 'may contain' issue.
"Our concern is that 'may contain' is not regulated. In the case of accidental contamination the consumer has no idea of knowing if there is a risk to eating the food product or not." The alliance is pushing the Commission to strengthen the legislation and to formulate specified thresholds for food allergens on food labels.
Providing justification for the new directive, a panel at the European Food Safety Authority earlier this year claimed there is ample evidence to justify the mandatory inclusion on food labels of the most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives: cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soy, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.