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Sep 24: Safe standards for food allergens recommended

Sep 24: Safe standards for food allergens recommended

An expert committee of the WHO and the World Food Organization FAO, at the request of a UN special committee, recommended standards for warning of the possible unintended presence of allergens in food. These standards can help prevent potentially life-threatening situations for food-allergic consumers and significantly improve the quality of life of people with a food allergy and their environment. Research by, among others, TNO, UMC Utrecht and Utrecht University into the sensitivities of people with a food allergy formed the basis for this scientific advice.

Prof. dr. Geert Houben, Chief Scientist of Food Allergy and Immune Toxicology at TNO and Professor of Food-Related Risk Factors for Allergies and Inflammatory Diseases at UMC Utrecht and Utrecht University, was a member of the international expert committee appointed for this project. Geert Houben: “In the current situation, food-allergic people have the fear of getting a life-threatening allergic reaction every day, every meal, every bite. Clear standards, based on a good understanding of the actual risks of allergens, would vastly improve their lives.” In 2019, the Codex* Committee on Food Labeling therefore requested the FAO and WHO to issue a scientific opinion on safe maximum exposure levels for allergens.

Prof. dr. Geert Houben

Allergens in food pose a great danger to people with food allergies. About 3 percent of the population has a food allergy; in the Netherlands that is about half a million people. Allergens that occur in ingredients that are processed in food must be clearly stated on the label by the manufacturer in accordance with current legislation. However, allergens can also accidentally end up in food, a risk that cannot always be ruled out 100 percent.

Food manufacturers and suppliers often warn against the possible unintended presence of allergens (“may contain traces of …”). However, there are no rules about when to warn about this risk or not. As a result, food products without warning often contain allergens and labels of food products without allergens often contain a warning. Because the food-allergic consumer cannot draw any conclusion whatsoever from the presence or absence of a warning, a potentially life-threatening situation may arise.

Standards for the presence of allergens

Research by TNO, UMC Utrecht and Utrecht University, among others, has shown that this situation regularly results in serious allergic reactions and significantly affects the quality of life of food-allergic patients. Half of all food-allergic patients studied have an unexpected allergic reaction one or more times a year. In a large proportion of cases this concerns serious reactions and 4 percent of the patients ended up in the emergency room. The solution to this problem lies in establishing allergen standards that indicate the maximum amounts that are safe for allergic consumers ('reference doses'). Based on these standards, it is possible to prescribe when or not to warn about the possible unintended presence of an allergen.

International database

For years, research has focused on improving the methodology for assessing the risks of allergens and providing insight into the sensitivity of the food-allergic population. Central to this research is an international database managed by TNO with more than 3500 thresholds of sensitivity of individual food-allergic patients. The current study and the TNO database were considered by the WHO/FAO Expert Committee to be "the most comprehensive and best-described resource available, both in terms of content and composition, with supporting publications reviewed by international experts". When establishing reference doses, the Expert Committee relied on analyzes of the database performed and published by TNO.

Security for food-allergic persons

Based on these standards, producers now know exactly when a label should or should not warn about the possible unintended presence of an allergen and food-allergic persons can rely on the information on a label with peace of mind. Geert Houben: "The setting of these standards has been discussed for years. We are therefore very pleased that an authoritative international body such as the WHO/FAO has come to this advice. I see it as an important milestone that we have achieved over the years.”

*The Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) develops international standards for food products with the aim of protecting international public health and promoting fair trade in food products. Codex is a United Nations (UN) organization, under the banner of both the FAO (UN International Food and Agriculture Organization) and WHO (World Health Organization).

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