Allergens continue to challenge food industry

by Laurie Gorton
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TAMPA, FLA. — Regulatory controls over food allergens are coming, warned Steve Taylor, Ph.D., founder and co-director of the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Dr. Taylor delivered the John C. Halvorsen Memorial Award lecture on April 10 at the 2014 Spring Technical Conference organized by the Milling & Baking Division of the American Association of Cereal Chemists International, held April 9-11 at Tampa.

“The Food Safety Modernization Act (F.S.M.A.) requires the food industry to have allergen prevention controls, but we don’t yet know what these are,” he observed, suggesting proposals might be offered in Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) guidance documents instead of formal regulations. Still, headway is being made.

“Because of F.S.M.A., we will see more companies with more allergen control protocols,” he said.

Food allergens represent the No. 1 source of food recalls today and impact all food processing segments.

Although much progress has taken place since America awakened to the dangers of food allergens in the 1980s, “there is still much to do,” Dr. Taylor said. For example, allergen exposure thresholds have been set by only two countries: Japan at 10 parts per million (p.p.m.) and Switzerland at 1,000 p.p.m. The F.D.A. has published a preliminary discussion of allergen thresholds but has not yet established any.

“Physicians recommend a zero threshold,” Dr. Taylor noted, “but we’ve learned that the notion that very small amounts can trigger severe reactions is not true.”

Today, scientists have good data about threshold levels for peanut, milk, egg and hazelnut allergies. Dr. Taylor pointed to research done in Australia.

“Once you have data on thresholds, you can predict exposure doses and how many people in the population are at risk,” he said.

One troubling development involved the “may contain” and “processed in a plant that handles” statements on food packages.

“Precautionary labeling is being ignored by many food-allergic consumers,” Dr. Taylor said. “It has almost lost its usefulness.”

When it comes to test protocols, Dr. Taylor said FARRP advocates testing of finished products, “because that’s the food the consumer buys.”

He traced the rise of awareness about food allergens, starting with the eight deaths reported in a 1988 paper from the Mayo Clinic. The issue caught fire, and in 1991, concerned individuals, led by a mother who had lost a child to anaphylactic shock brought on by a food allergy, founded the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (now Food Allergy Research & Education, Inc., or FARE, based in McLean, VA). In 1999, Codex Alimentarius defined the Big Eight food allergens: crustacean shellfish, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, soy, tree nuts and wheat. And in 2006, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act became law.

“There has been a steady march of regulatory interest,” Dr. Taylor observed. “And there’s still a lot to be done. Allergen controls are coming.”
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