Having clearly defined action levels for 'may contain' and 'free from' labelling would bring significant benefits for food manufacturers and retailers, enforcement agencies and consumers, Food Standards Agency allergy chief Sue Hattersley told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
“There has been a lot of research investigating the prevalence of food allergy in the last few years and the International Life Sciences Institute’s (ILSI's) food allergy task force is now looking at how we can move from clinical thresholds in patients to action levels that industry can work to. And they are expected to report back by mid-2012.”
Dose response curves
She added: “There is a lot of data on peanuts, eggs and milk now, although there is always the chance that safety factors we might have to apply to dose response curves make the thresholds so low that they are unworkable, for example. But at least we know how to proceed now.”
While it could take some time before action levels suggested by ILSI could be translated into legal limits, she admitted, a voluntary approach could work in the meantime.
“The action levels set by the ILSI expert group in mid-2012 would be submitted to the European Commission before going to the European Food Safety Authority for assessment and this could take some time. But in the meantime they could form the basis of an industry code of practice and this could in turn enable us to re-launch ‘may contains’ labelling underpinned by clear action levels.”
She added: “It may be that if we agree action levels and best practice that we could also think about the wording of ‘may contains’ statements at the same time so that everyone is using the same language.”
Hattersley, who delivered a presentation on allergen management and labelling at a recent international symposium on allergens and risk management in Nice, was speaking to FoodManufacture.co.uk shortly after the Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF’s) allergens steering group published a paper setting out a best practice approach to allergen management in a bid to tackle excessive ‘may contains’ labelling.
The paper - ‘A Vision for Allergen Management Best Practice in the Food Industry' - proposes a shift from a hazard-based approach to a more consistent risk-based approach whereby manufacturers carefully assess the risk of cross-contamination with allergens and only use 'may contains' terms where this risk cannot be controlled.
Rachel Ward, chair of the steering group, said: “Application of allergen management principles is still inconsistent. Individual manufacturers are currently interpreting risk in the supply chain differently as there are no agreed approaches to perform risk assessment to a common standard."
At Food Manufacture’s conference on allergen management earlier this year RSSL's allergens expert Simon Flanagan said the lack of thresholds made enforcement very challenging: “There was a recall recently on dark chocolate that contained milk. It did actually have a 'may contain' label but it was recalled anyway because it contained 'too much' milk. But how much is too much?”
Clearly defined thresholds would provide firms with action levels to work to, plus defined levels for enforcement, he said.
The Nice symposium was designed to disseminate outputs from recent research projects into allergens, notably the Europrevall project, a EU 6th Framework project to investigate the prevalence of food allergy in Europe, said Hattersley.
Read more about the research here.