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Allergen cross-contamination raises labeling concerns

By Stephen Daniells , 26-Jan-2010

Cross-contamination of allergens in food products may reach levels that are of public health relevance, says a new study from The Netherlands.

Researchers from TNO Quality of Life and University Medical Center, Utrecht report that analysis of dark chocolate not labelled as “may contain” milk proteins were found to contain milk protein concentrations at levels that may elicit allergic reactions in up to 68 per cent of the adult allergic consumers.

“Milk protein concentrations in unlabelled dark chocolate sprinkles, probably present as a result of cross-contact, were shown to reach levels that can cause serious allergic reactions within the milk-allergic population,” wrote the researchers in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants.

“Obviously, precautionary labelling needs guidance in terms of concentration levels that indicate when a product should be labelled precautionarily in order to be valuable to the consumer,” they added.

According to the new TNO research, a solution to the problem may lie in probabilistic risk assessment. Led by Marielle Spanjersberg, the researchers report that an automated probabilistic method that combines consumption of a wide range of food products with the sensitivity of allergic patients for a number of food allergens may be a promising approach for risk management of allergens at the population level.

“Now and in the future probabilistic allergen risk assessment is a way to calculate the health risk impact of contaminated products and to provide a sound basis for risk-management decisions,” they wrote.

Allergy stats

According to Allergy UK, 45 per cent of the UK population face food sensitivities at some point in their lives, and 2 per cent suffer from a food allergy.

There are between five and 15 food allergy-related deaths each year, according to the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA).

New data

Spurred on by the report of a cow’s milk protein allergic patient experiencing a severe allergic reaction to a dark chocolate product that did not declare the potential presence of milk proteins, Spanjersberg and her co-workers analysed milk protein levels in the complaint sample and other product batches and brands.

Using risk assessment techniques based on probability, they found that, in some cases, the unintended presence of milk protein reached levels that could provoke an allergic reaction in a large part of the milk allergic population.

Labelling rules

The EC introduced directive 89/2003 in November 2004 to require pre-packed foods sold in the European Union to show clearly on the label if they contain any of 12 listed allergenic foods as an ingredient.

There is general agreement between the food industry, consumer support groups and enforcement bodies, that excessive use of warning labels about the possible presence of allergens not only unnecessarily restricts consumer choice but also devalues the impact of the warnings.

Under the new rules, all ingredients will have to be listed on the label, even if they are part of a compound ingredient, or present in just tiny amounts.

Source: Food Additives & Contaminants
2010, Volume 27, Issue 2, Pages 169-174, doi:10.1080/19440040903317513)
“Concentrations of undeclared allergens in food products can reach levels that are relevant for public health”
Authors: M.Q.I. Spanjersberg, A.C. Knulst, A.G. Kruizinga, G. Van Duijn, G.F. Houben

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