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Allergen Management: Food industry needs to increase its efforts in the risk management and communication field

Allergenmanagement in der Praxis

The 7th International Fresenius Conference “Food Allergens” was held in Wiesbaden/Germany on 12 and 13 November – four months after the draft of a Code of Practice for allergen management was presented by the European Codex Committee on Food Hygiene (CCFH). This Codex was one of the main topics of focus at this international symposium – alongside the limits facing allergen quantification and new approaches to risk management and communication.

The VITAL 2.0 concept – tested for effectivity

The VITAL concept (“Voluntary Incidental Trace Allergen Labelling”) offers a standardised approach to evaluating and voluntarily declaring unintentional entries (so-called cross contamination) of allergens in food based on clinical thresholds. This concept was developed by international food producers and the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) in 2007. VITAL 2.0, a revised version, combines the use of reference doses with portion sizes. A reference dose is the absolute amount of protein contained in an allergenic food, below which the overwhelming majority (95-99%) of allergy sufferers are not likely to show an adverse reaction. Thomas Holzhauser of Paul-Ehrlich-Institut, moderator of the Fresenius conference, is chairperson of a group of experts at the International Life Sciences Institute Europe, which has examined just how analytical methods can be used to verify the existence of allergenic components. He also compared the detection limits of the methods with the clinical reference doses in different portion sizes. In addition to the necessary sensitivity, the comparable quantification due to various uncertainty factors, such as the correct choice of the marker materials, which are to be detected, is a challenge, according to Holzhauser.

Reliable tests to accurately confirm the existence of potential allergenic contamination have long become an indispensable necessity in the food production sector. Currently, a range of different tests is available on the market. Simon Flanagan of Reading Scientific Services (Great Britain) presented the latest evaluation results of the ELISA test kit. The widespread solid phase coupled enzyme immunoassay (ELISA) is an antibody-based test method which is considered to be sensitive, fast and reliable. However, ELISA test kits may also exhibit factors of uncertainty, just like other analytical methods. Robust analytical methods still constitute a “key gap” in setting action levels. The research sector is desperately dependent on “real-world” reference materials in order to be able to compare the results of different analysis kits. To get good results from these analysis kits, both the capability of the kit manufacturer and meticulous lab validation are imperative.

Varying allergy patterns in Europe

Clare Mills of the University of Manchester (Great Britain) pointed out just how important the selection of the study population was in determining thresholds. Not only must factors such as gender and age be taken into consideration but also the geographical location as reactivity to foods differs across Europe. For example, sensitisation to lipid transfer proteins is known to exist primarily in the Mediterranean zone where these proteins sometimes bring about severe allergic reactions.

Cross-contamination: Always a question of the right or wrong cleaning methods

Peter Littleton, Technical Director at Christeyns Food Hygiene, a manufacturer of hygiene chemicals, explained the importance of cleaning and hygiene factors in preventing cross-contamination. He recommended adopting a holistic approach to the question of food production and to focus equally on the factors of “time, thoroughness, cleaning agents and equipment”. As a result of allergenic proteins being unaffected by the action of disinfectants (as a consequence of them not being alive) the actual process of cleaning is vital in managing this element of food safety. Littleton stated that: “Cross-contamination is often a hazard related to the quality of cleaning!” and that during the cleaning process, the removal of proteins from food contact surfaces was critical.

“Free from” labels not always devoid of misunderstanding

Many European food manufacturers state that their products are free from gluten, palm oil, lactose or other ingredients in their advertising. At this Fresenius conference, Ylva Sjögren Bolin from the National Food Agency in Sweden and Andrea Martinez-Inchausti from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) reported on their experience with free from labelling in their respective countries. In Great Britain, the sale of “free from”-labelled food doubled between 2010 and 2015 - amounting to 470 million pounds in 2015. Experts expect this figure to rise to 673 million pounds by 2020. Food labelled “free from” is not only given preference by people who suffer from allergies. Worried consumers who have developed a feeling of distrust towards “normal food” are also now selecting these products. The classic British purchaser of gluten-free products is either between 50 and 65 years of age or a member of the technically-orientated “millennial” generation aged between 25 and 35. Both of these customer groups should be able to put their trust in the same standard, Andrea Martinez-Inchausti went on to say. The BRC has brought out a guidance document on correct labelling. “The ‘free from’ claim should only be used following a strict examination of the ingredients and production process. This should be based on a comprehensive risk analysis, accompanied by strict controls under application of analytical test procedures”, Andrea Martinez-Inchausti stated.

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