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Feb 08

Is food allergen analysis flawed?

Food allergy is an increasing problem for those affected, their families or carers, the food industry and for regulators. The food supply chain is highly vulnerable to fraud involving food allergens, risking fatalities and severe reputational damage to the food industry.

A selection of nuts on a wooden spoonIt is understood that food allergy affects  up to 10% of children and 2-3% of adults – sometimes, tragically, with fatal outcomes – yet allergens remain challenging to analyse accurately, and are thus difficult to control.

Backroom lab difficulties seldom make headlines so it was exciting news when the Royal Society of Chemistry emailed to say our paper “Is food allergen analysis flawed? Health and supply chain risks and a proposed framework to address urgent analytical needs” was one of the top 25 most downloaded articles published in the Analyst in 2016. Our ‘grand vision’ in the paper, is

  • bioinformatics studies to pin down relevant markers or allergenic proteins within allergenic foods
  • development of reference methods for these allergens
  • appropriate reference materials which can ultimately support threshold decisions.

Thresholds are ‘limits’ that help decide if a food is safe or not safe for people with allergies (see section 6 of this excellent guide from the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology) but a crucial aspect of control is the ability accurately to test for allergens in foods to manage and police thresholds.

Our recommendations in the paper 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.

Interest in this issue is building. I also recently spoke at an international conference on this topic, delivering two talks on food fraud and allergy.

 

Submitted by Michael Walker.

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