Life for people allergic to peanuts might just have got easier with scientists in the UK announcing this week that they have developed a test to detect tiny amounts of peanut in processed food.
Working on behalf of the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), the researchers claim that traces of peanut as small as one part in 10 million can now be detected and distinguished from other types of nut. The test can identify peanut DNA (the peanut's genetic material) and when fully developed should mean that manufacturers will be able to check whether their products have any peanut content.
Dr Andrew Wadge, acting director of Food Safety Policy at the FSA, said: "This new test is a small but important step forward in our work to protect people who are affected by a [peanut] food allergy. Further research is needed to explore whether the test can be adapted to detect other common food allergens. However, it is hoped that the work could lead to the development of a process that food businesses will be able to use in their production methods."
According to the FSA, about one in 200 people in the UK is allergic to peanuts and even a small amount of peanut can make them very ill. Each year around 10 people die because of this food allergy.
Currently foods undergoing a manufacturing process could become contaminated by food from another production line or by raw ingredients that have come into contact with an allergen. As a result of this uncertainty, manufacturers may label products with phrases such as 'may contain peanuts' to warn people with an allergy of the possibility of the allergen's presence.
Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the UK Food and Drink Federation, welcomed the news but warned that the risk of contamination could well remain.
"We look forward to seeing the details of the Food Standard Agency's research. A reliable and practical test method could help manufacturers to assess risk but cannot eliminate the possibility of adventitious contamination, which has to be addressed by good manufacturing practices," he said.
Referring to 'may contain' advisory labelling, the FDF stressed that the consistent message has been that such advice should only be given where "there is a real and demonstrable risk of traces of a major allergen being present in foods: it should never be devalued by use as an 'insurance policy' where there is no real risk".
Reflecting the growing problem of food allergens, the European Council last year endorsed a Commission proposal which would see a Europe-wide revised labelling regime providing consumers with much more information about potential allergens. This new regime would extend from foodstuffs to include alcoholic beverages.