Current rules establish a list of 14 food allergens which have to be indicated on pack whenever they, or ingredients made from them, are used at any level in pre-packed foods. The list includes cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, molluscs, eggs, fish, peanuts, nuts, soybeans, milk, celery, mustard, sesame and lupin.
However, according to TNO, issues arise when tiny amounts of allergenic ingredients find their way into products through cross-contamination or raw materials.
“Because of that companies cannot be absolutely sure they have excluded allergens, which has led to the use of voluntary precautionary warnings such as 'may contain traces of milk' or 'produced in a factory where peanuts are also processed',” Geert Houben, business line manager food safety with TNO, told FoodNavigator.
He added: “These are being used so often they have little information value and people ignore them.”
The answer, he believes, is to develop international guidelines with action levels for each allergen, so that broadbrush precautionary warnings can be replaced by more uniform and transparent risk information.
“We need to set quantitative action limits that give clear and transparent guidance to food manufacturers as to when they should mention a possible cross-contamination and when they shouldn’t. In practice if there was incidental contamination with an allergen, that would mean the manufacturer would need to assess the situation and estimate the maximum concentration of allergen in the food. If it was below the limit, they would need to trust the risk was small enough to ignore.”
TNO has conceived risk assessment methodologies and a database of food allergen susceptibility data which it claims have ‘opened the way’ for the development of risk assessment guidelines.
“For the major allergens we can now estimate the number of people that may have an allergic reaction if a certain quantity of allergens is contained in a food product as well as the maximum amount of allergen that a food product may contain without it being a risk,” said Houben.
These tools are being used by the expert working group ‘From thresholds to Action Levels’ which was formed by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) to develop quantitative limits for use across industry for the presence of unintended allergenic constituents in products.
The group is chaired by René Crevel, science leader, allergy and immunology, of Unilever, who told FoodNavigator: “We know from our own research that the current situation has driven consumers who suffer from allergies to take risks, in other words, try out products with the ‘may contain’ label on. This is why we are working to establish limits. Our ultimate goal is to provide safe foods for allergen sufferers and enable them to make informed food choices as well as providing consistency throughout the supply chain.”