Michael Walker, consultant referee analyst for the Government Chemist programme, was invited to take part in the workshop to share his expertise on recent referee cases in the UK and to hear about the various methods for analysis.
The two-day workshop was organised by Romer Labs Ltd and was held at its head office in Tulln, near Vienna, Austria, last week. Romer Labs is a specialist food testing company that works closely with the Centre for Analytical Chemistry of the University of Vienna and manufactures ELISA kits which are used in a wide range of food analysis. The two-day workshop was intended for professionals involved in food allergen management and included delegates from food companies in the UK, Austria, Germany, Italy and Spain. Attendees had the chance to try modern screening methods, instructed by experienced experts and the opportunity to adapt them to their own requirements.
Michael gave an introduction to food allergy and, based on research carried out under the Government Chemist Programme, discussed the pros and cons of the principle techniques for analysis of allergens – ELISA, PCR and Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS/MS).
Routine and confirmatory quality control approaches were discussed and delegates learned how to interpret results based on the Allergen Bureau VITAL (Voluntary Incidental Trace Allergen Labelling) system and EAACI (European Academy of Allergy & Clinical Immunology) Guideline reference doses for major allergens. Michael reviewed recent cases of cumin and paprika containing undeclared almond, and concluded with the following recommendations for future work:
- Research on causes and ‘cures’ of food allergy will yield good useable outcomes, but need much more work on fundamental immunology.
- Food businesses hold responsibility for dealing with allergen cross-contamination; thresholds will help but this requires a lot more dialogue with stakeholders such as patient support groups, and further research.
- Deaths from food allergies are rare but thorough investigation of food allergy deaths, particularly in the catering sector, is required. The skills and capacity for investigations should be improved and supply chains must be rigorously examined if adulteration or contamination with the fatal allergen occurred.
- The EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (1169/2011) has made good progress on provision of allergen information since it came into force in December 2014 but robust enforcement on non-compliers needs to start soon.
- Knowledge and skills gaps need to be addressed for the investigation and prosecution of potentially serious incidents of food allergen mismanagement and mislabelling.
- A tenacious approach is required in these investigations, e.g. early realisation that samples of food and/or stomach contents should be retained and analysed.
- Analysis urgently needs to be improved. There is a need for more reference materials, better bioinformatics, and metrological traceability is required.
Michael Walker, consultant referee analyst for the Government Chemist programme, gave a comprehensive talk on food allergies, touching on why food allergies are increasing and what is being done to counter this, during an All Island Environmental Health Forum conference on 21-22 May in Cork.
The conference was organised by the Environmental Health Association of Ireland (EHAI) and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, Northern Ireland (CIEH NI).
Michael’s talk was part of the Thursday morning session on ‘Rethinking ‘Safe Food’ chaired by Peter Gaffey, Chairman, EHAI. Following a welcome by Peter and Ursula Walsh Chairman, CIEH NI, the opening address was given by Dr Pamela Byrne, CEO, Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
Anneke Toorop, Policy Officer, European Commission DG Health and Food Safety, gave a keynote speech on intelligence and investigation of food crime in the Netherlands and administrative assistance and cooperation in enforcement at the EU level.
Michael’s talk, entitled ‘Food Allergy, Challenges and developments’, touched on what is known of the underlying immunological basis of food allergy, the comparative risks and the current developments. He described challenges in labelling, catering, and science-based enforcement, including the current controversy on alleged almond contamination of cumin. He discussed ‘thresholds’ and illustrated supply chain security using examples from his recent published study with Hazel Gowland on allergy cases in the UK courts.
The presentation slides, Food allergy – Challenges and developments, are available to download.
Filed under: Allergies, EU Regulation/Legislation | Tags: allergens, Food labelling, foods
A fit and healthy 22-year-old girl collapses suddenly after eating a cake and is rushed to hospital. She spends three days in intensive care and five more days in hospital recovering. Poison might have been suspected but there is no investigation for attempted murder. The culprit is caught but walks free from court with just a £7,500 fine.
You may find this shocking, but this was a real UK court case in 2010. The poison: peanuts. The charge: selling falsely labelled food.
In a comment article in the latest issue of Chemistry and Industry magazine (13 March 2015), Michael Walker, Consultant Science Manager for the Government Chemist, and Hazel Gowland, from Allergy Action, discuss this court case as part of a recent review they carried out examining court cases in the UK involving fatalities, personal injury, or criminal non-compliance with food law.
The article outlines the role businesses must play in protecting people with food allergies and the need for tough sanctions if they fail in their duty. They explain the difficulties in detecting the presence of allergenic proteins in foods and why techniques for measuring allergens need to be standardised.
Visit the Chemistry and Industry website to access a copy of the article.
A major UK retailer has changed its labelling policy on allergens in its products. Tesco has now added advice on the presence of peanuts – to which hundreds of thousands of people have an allergy – to a significantly wider range of products, including pizza and baked beans, which have traditionally not been labelled as containing nuts.
There is concern over whether these products do contain small traces of nuts – which even at very trace levels can cause significant problems for some allergy sufferers – or whether tests to determine whether such traces are present are being carried out.
This highlights the dichotomy for food retailers and producers between labelling as a precautionary measure and allowing allergy sufferers to choose from a wide range of safe foods. The Government Chemist has been carrying out work on improving allergen detection and quantitation, and this is carrying on into the new programme of work (April 2014 to March 2017).
There have been significant advances recently in the quality and reliability of methods which can be employed in laboratories for the measurement of a range of allergens in foodstuffs.