More action needs to be taken in order to better protect people with food allergies. That's according to a report from a leading UK team of food safety experts, including Professor Chris Elliott from Queen's University Belfast, who led the recent independent review of the UK's food system.
Professor Elliott, founder of Queen's University's Institute for Global Food Security, is co-author of a paper published in The Royal Society of Chemistry's journal Analyst, outlining a strategy to close the gaps in current processes for detecting and measuring allergens - substances in foods that can trigger an allergic reaction. The publication comes during the UK's Allergy Awareness Week (25th April - 1 May).
Food allergy is a rapidly growing problem in the developed world, affecting up to 10 per cent of children and 2-3 per cent of adults. Allergic reactions can range from a mild runny nose, skin irritation or stomach upset to severe anaphylaxis, which can be fatal.
Food allergies have significant impact on quality of life and usually require lifelong avoidance of the offending foods. There are also burdens on health care, the food industry and regulators.
Professor Elliott and Professor Duncan Burns, Emeritus Professor at Queen's Institute for Global Food Security, are among a team of experts led by Michael Walker from the Government Chemist Programme at LGC, which has outlined a 'grand vision' to address the key challenges in allergen measurement and analysis. They make a series of recommendations primarily addressed to the European Commission's Health and Food Safety Directorate, DG Santé, aimed at securing a food chain which is reliable, resistant to fraud and ultimately safe for consumers.
Professor Elliott is a world-renowned expert on food fraud and traceability and led the independent review of the UK's food system following the 2013 horsemeat scandal. He said: "The food supply chain is highly vulnerable to fraud involving food allergens, risking consumer health and reputational damage to the food industry. Cross-contamination during production, processing and transport is also a problem. While efforts have been made to improve food labelling and introduce the concept of threshold quantities for allergens, these depend on being able to accurately detect and quantify allergens in the first instance. Gaps in the current system mean that it is difficult to achieve this.
"This paper sets out a strategy to address those gaps and calls on the EC to take action in three particular areas. Firstly, the use of bioinformatics studies for modelling how best to predict what allergens present in foods, and specifically what quantities of these allergens, will adversely affect the health of someone with food allergies. Secondly, the development of reference methods which will provide a 'gold standard' for the detection and measurement of allergens in food. And thirdly, the production of reference materials which can support threshold decisions -samples of foods with known, controlled amounts of allergens present, to allow for checks on the accuracy of allergen testing methods."
Significant international effort and an inter-disciplinary approach will be required to achieve these aims and protect those at risk of food allergies. Lead author of the report, Michael Walker from LCG said: "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. 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."
The open access paper in Analyst is available here.
Media inquiries to Anne-Marie Clarke (Mon-Wed) or Michelle Cassidy (Thur-Fri) at Queen's University Communications Office T: +44 (0)28 9097 5310 E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes to editors:
1. Professor Chris Elliott is available for interview.
2. The full title of the paper is: 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. Open access link: http://pubs.
3. Interview bids for Michael Walker should be directed to LGC.
4. The Institute for Global Food Security
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as "when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life". At a time when the world's population is growing at a faster rate than any time in history, food security is a global challenge that pervades human health, sustainable economic development, environment, and trade.
The Institute for Global Food Security at Queen's University Belfast was formed in 2013 under the leadership of Professor Chris Elliott, with the aim to play a major role in developing solutions to the complex problem of delivering safe, nutritious, sustainable, authentic food supplies to the world's population, and has become internationally recognised for its excellence in research and teaching. The vision for the future is to develop an Institute that is unique in its ability to take a holistic approach to food security challenges. The Global Research Institute will aim to encompass cutting-edge research activities right across the spectrum of food security research, going beyond the 'farm to fork' strategy to span the environment-farm-food-health-economics interactome to form a unique brand that redefines global food security research.