Managing allergy in the food chain  – Frances Dale reports on an industry conference.

 

How significant a place allergy now holds in the minds of food manufacturers was evidenced by the excellent attendance at a recent conference staged by William Reed to discuss the management of allergens in the food chain. Although the importance placed on allergy may have less to do with the number of allergic consumers (probably around 5% of the population) than the massive cost to the company, both financial and  to their reputation, of recalls of wrongly labelled or contaminated products which might result in an allergic consumer suffering a fatal reaction.

Most allergic consumers (even those who are genuinely allergic as opposed to intolerant or those merely choosing to avoid specific foods) have little idea of the difficulty of manufacturing foods which are completely free from specific ingredients. Several of the presentations showed in some detail the complexity of the processes necessary to keep allergens securely separated from other ingredients throughout the supply, manufacturing, packaging and delivery chain. However, for the manufacturer, practical problems of separation and possible contamination are further bedeviled by the uncertainly over the amount of an allergen that is needed to trigger a reaction.

Although there are a number of international research projects (such as EuroPrevall) which are labouring to pin allergens down, there is still no certainty as to how little of a specific allergen (and the amount inevitably differs for each allergen) could be fatal for a consumer with a serious allergy. When reactions have been suffered by fish allergics inhaling fish vapour it is clear that we could be talking about very small amounts. However, from the food industry’s perspective, without knowing how much of an allergen is going to cause a reaction, they do not know how rigorous they have to be in excluding that allergen.

So the loudest call from the conference floor was for allergen thresholds – although there seems little chance of thresholds being established in the near future.  The Food Standards Agency is commissioning further research but, realistically, it will be another four to five years before this will be of any practical value. Several delegates asked why we could not follow the Australian lead and at least establish some working thresholds, even though they may not yet be totally accurate, just to give the industry something to go on. Inthe mean time manufacturers are attempting to work to the ‘lowest possible level’ – which, although admirable, is not really reassuring.

Interestingly, although the industry is obviously very concerned about the issue of thresholds, analysis of product recalls suggests that the majority have nothing to do with contamination (the issue relevant to thresholds) but with inaccurate or incorrect labelling (over 50%) or incorrect packaging of products (over 20%). For both of these one is at least dealing with a known quantity.

As of now, most manufacturers use hazard analysis as the basis for their protocols, but several of the speakers suggested that, for allergen management where it is impossible to guarantee an absolute absence of the allergen, a system of risk analysis, especially as regards labelling, would be more helpful both to consumers and the manufacturer. It would also involve all the stakeholders (regulators, manufacturers and consumers) in a more informed and productive dialogue.

A well devised risk analysis labelling system could also render obsolete the current ‘may contain’ warnings which are so unhelpful as far as consumers are concerned. As currently used, they give no genuine guidance as to the risk involved with the result that either allergic consumers needlessly avoid a whole range of foods that they could safely eat, or that they ignore them entirely on the basis that they are just 'the industry covering its back' thereby putting themselves at consdierable risk.

However, like the thresholds, this too may take some considerable time to achieve.

 

For more information on the conference or to access the presentations (for which William Reed do make a charge) contact conference manager Helen Law.

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First Published in 2010