Apr 27

Is food allergen analysis flawed?

The Government Chemist Programme and expert collaborators call on Europe to improve the safety and security of food for people with allergies


This Allergy Awareness Week we want to highlight the current challenges with food allergen measurements.

Food allergy is a rapidly growing problem in the developed world, affecting up to 10 % of children and 2-3 % of adults. Common trigger foods can be milk, eggs, shellfish, nuts, fish, and even citrus fruits or kiwis. The reactions those at risk experience on eating these trigger foods can range from a mild runny nose or sneezing attack to severe skin reactions, throat swelling, vomiting and diarrhoea. And very rarely these reactions can result in anaphylaxis and prove fatal.

Regardless of the extent of reaction, people with allergies must be careful to avoid the offending food and they, their parents and carers can suffer a significantly diminished quality of life.

Currently the risks associated with allergic reactions to food are being managed mainly through labelling. We have all seen lists of potential allergens on the back of packaging: “may contain nuts” on the back of a pack of hazelnut and chocolate chip cookies. However, there are other less obvious risks to consumers with food allergies than just the ingredients used directly in making a cookie. Allergens can be present due to cross-contamination during harvest transport or storage and documenting their presence is much harder. To prevent contamination, segregation and cleaning procedures are crucial but “may contain”-style labelling is currently often resorted to, which is not ideal.

The key to unlock this problem may be the concept of “thresholds of elicitation”, the lowest concentrations that produce an allergic response in a defined (low) proportion of the allergic population. A huge amount of work is being done to determine safe thresholds for allergens but without the framework in place to measure allergens accurately and reliably, this work will be in vain. Currently issues such as measurement cross-reactivity, the complexity of food samples, and the lack of standardisation present massive challenges to accurate allergen measurements.

In the recently published open access Analyst paper, Michael Walker, of the Government Chemist Programme at LGC, and his colleagues present a strategy to address these key measurement challenges in allergen analysis: a ‘grand vision’ requiring significant international effort and an inter-disciplinary approach.

Of this challenge Michael Walker said:

Our recommendations are complex with associated resource demand but rarely has such an exciting interdisciplinary scientific endeavour arisen as a solution to a key socially relevant problem.

If we fail to realise the promise of future risk management of food allergens through lack of the ability to measure food allergens properly the analytical community will have failed a significant societal challenge.

The recommendations are primarily addressed to the European Commission, the Health and Food Safety Directorate, DG Santé. They suggest the need for bioinformatics studies to relevant markers or allergenic proteins within allergenic foods; the development of reference methods for these allergenic proteins and ultimately production of appropriate reference materials which can support threshold decisions.

The result of these efforts would be a food chain which is reliable, resistant to fraud and ultimately safe for allergic consumers.


The challenges of allergen measurements will also be discussed at the Government Chemist Conference: Science supporting trust in food on 21-22 June 2016.


Notes for editors

M J Walker, D T Burns, C T Elliott, M H Gowland, E N C Mills. Is food allergen analysis flawed? Health and supply chain risks and a proposed framework to address urgent analytical needs. Analyst (2016) 141:24-35. doi:10.1039/c5an01457c open access paper

Michael Walker is available for interview

To contact the press office please email Julian Quigley, PR Manager, or call +44 (0)20 8943 8491

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