Food makers can do more to avert food allergy risk, says UK group

By Lindsey Partos

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food Food allergy Allergy Asthma Uk

With a European crackdown on food labels for nuts and other
allergens imminent, food makers have their work cut out, says UK
consumer group.

An estimated 4 per cent of adults and 8 per cent of children in the 380 million EU population suffer from food allergies, according to the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients' Associations.

There is no current cure for a food allergy, and vigilance by an allergic individual is the only way to prevent a reaction.

But a peanut allergy can be so severe that only very tiny amounts can be enough to trigger a response.

"We think manufacturers and retailers must consider whether they can do more to eliminate the risk of contamination by allergens,"​ says Which? consumer group.

Investigating how prevalent nut contamination is in food products, consumer group Which? tested for the presence of hazelnut and peanut in 26 foods, chosen because the labels did not mention nuts.

"Five products contained traces of hazelnut. All were imported from various European countries,"​ writes Which? in the October issue of its magazine.

Under current rules food makers do not have to declare allergens on the label if they are present in an added ingredient that makes up less than 25 per cent of the final food - for example, pepperoni on pizza.

But keeping a pace with the rise in sufferers, new European legislation cleared at the end of 2004, and to be enforced next month, brings in considerable legal requirements to curb the risk for food allergy sufferers.

It means those products identified by Which? as containing hazelnut but with no label to flag this up, would be outside the law.

Surveys such as these must be seen as warning to the food and beverage industry. Testing and labelling must be ship shape before next month.

But the Which? investigation reported "good news" for peanut allergy sufferers.

"When we tested for peanut, all the UK samples were below the lower limit of our tests,"​ writes the UK group.

No guarantee that they were totally peanut free, the results mean there were fewer than 2.5 parts per million of peanut, which is unlikely to trigger an allergic reaction.

In fact Directive 2003/89/EC, amending Directive 2000/13, ends the 20 year old '25 per cent' rule.

It heralds the mandatory inclusion on food labels of the most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives: cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soybeans, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.

Working the new rules to their advantage, ingredients players are offering 'allergen free' alternatives for food formulations.

UK firm Tastetech, for example, recently launched a range of 'nut-free' nut flavourings for food makers keen to gain the nut-free labels and for inclusion in a raft of food applications.

"Our new nut-free flavourings are authentic and can be added to a range of products to flavour and enhance. This is especially important for those allergic to nuts,"​ said Roger Sinton, managing director of TasteTech.

But development work is reliant on fundamental science, and how their findings can shed light on the evolution of food allergies.

In January this year, food makers came one step closer to being able to identify what makes a protein more likely to become an allergen; and consequently slicing them out of food formulations.

Scientists at the Norwich-based Institute of Food Research (IFR) claim that over a hundred allergens could be classified into just a handful of protein families.

They suggest that just four 'super-families' account for more than 65 per cent of food allergens.

"Knowing what makes a protein more likely to become an allergen could make it easier for manufacturers to identify potential allergens in novel foods and ingredients, preventing them from reaching the consumer,"​said Dr Clare Mills, head of the allergy research team at the IFR.

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