Better, cheaper, quicker food allergen tests on the way

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food Bfr Food allergy

Food processors could soon be able to detect minute traces of food allergens in their products on site and within minutes, thanks to a new test system under development in Germany.

The country’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) said it is working on a rapid test system that will detect the presence of allergens in food within 10 minutes that is easier to carry out, cheaper and more sensitive than existing methods. The BfR said the test method could be ready for use by the beginning of 2012.

Test method

The analytical method, which would be suitable for use by official food control agencies and industry players, will be able to detect “the tiniest traces of allergens in food within minutes” ​announced the body.

The test system involves three methods; one that is DNA based (PCR); one that is protein-based (ELISA) and one that is a combination of both, a BfR spokesman told

It is hoped the test will “reliably identify the genetic make-up of the allergenic substances even in highly processed food”.​ It will do this by copying the genetic make-up one million times in a real time polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This means the required reagents required will be universally available and the methods can be used around the globe by manufacturers and inspectors, said a BfR statement.

Reduce or avoid food allergens

The BfR said various allergens could be analysed in parallel including those which it had been difficult to detect up to now. The detection methods are intended to help food manufacturers to reduce or even completely avoid allergenic components which reach the food unintentionally.

“There is a gap of knowledge for more sensitive, reliable and robust test methods – in particular in the detection region of 1 parts per million (ppm) for some food allergens,”​ added the spokesman.

International threshold

The reproducibility of current methods is not sufficient to establish a recognised threshold for food allergens, said the BfR. There is a debate currently taking place within the international community to introduce thresholds for food allergens in different countries. To do this, international bodies need reliable methods that can do this, it added.

Since 2005, food processors and manufacturers have been obliged to list all main allergens on labels. At present, there are only two official laboratory detection methods which, said the BfR, are time-consuming and not every laboratory is equipped to carry them out.

It claimed the new method will help to reduce ambiguity on labelling where allergens, such as peanuts, reach food unintentionally. In such cases, it is up to manufacturers to indicate this on the label as there are no statutory requirements in this respect, said the BfR. Consequently, foods can carry labelling such as “May contain traces of peanuts​" or "Peanuts are also processed in our plant"​ on the packaging – which leaves allergen-sensitive consumers uncertain of whether the product is safe to consume or not.

The method, which involves putting food samples on test strip, should identify any allergen present within 10 minutes, the BfR said. This cuts out the need for a specially equipped laboratory for a first rapid result (screening) as the test can be done on site.

The BfR said: “Consumers can be given more reliable information about the level of allergenic components in a food. The official food control can reliably test food for even the smallest traces of allergens with less time and material outlay.”

Related topics Food safety & quality

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