Food allergy is increasingly becoming an area of serious concern and all those involved in keeping allergens away from sensitive consumers, industry, safety managers and the government, are finding it more and more difficult to deal with the situation. There are about 8 allergens considered serious and labeling regulations mandate the industry to declare the presence of any of these substances separately to capture the attention of the prospective buyers. It was not long ago that some of these allergens were detectable only beyond 5 ppm levels with the prevalent testing protocols but with tremendous advances being made in analytic techniques and instrumentation the detection threshold is continually coming down putting the industry at a disadvantage. Many products cannot be manufactured without very low traces of allergens, considered tolerable by affected consumers. However over anxious safety enforcement agencies tend to lower such limits because of better analytic techniques. This needs to be resisted as it borders on "over kill" with no additional benefit to any one. Here is a take on this emerging scenario vis-a-vis allergen detection.
"We know that technology is capable of being more sensitive," said Tony Lupo, Neogen director of technical services. "The question is, what is the risk and reward of that?" Do lower levels better protect the food-allergic and food-sensitive populations? Or do they place unrealistically low levels on manufacturers? If testing detects continually lowered levels, "what does that do to the industry in performing due diligence?" Lupo asked. Of course, anytime an allergenic ingredient is added to a product, regardless of the amount, it must be declared. But when testing for unintentional cross contamination, it is currently up to the processor to determine what is acceptable. Most choose to test at 5 ppm, Lupo said. And that is a level that can be maintained through good sanitation and allergen programs. But going much below that, he added, "may mean that certain products may not be manufacturable."
There is absolutely no two opinion that allergen information is very critical in saving precious lives and the existing regulations have served well so far. A review of the existing limits for allergens may be required as and when consumers show a tendency to be vulnerable to lower levels of such substances. Industry should not be put in a difficult situation by bringing down tolerable levels of allergens to impractical levels. The glitter of sophisticated electronic instruments with fantastic analytical capabilities should not blur the vision of safety policy makers.