The £143,000 (€182,400) research commenced in May 2012 and will run for a full year to May 2013.
It will analyse 500 pre-packed processed foods, purchased in duplicate (1,000 samples in total), sampled from across major and smaller national supermarkets and independent retailers.
The sample will include products with allergen advisory statements and an equal amount of comparable products without.
Research will ascertain the unintended presence and quantity of the four major food allergens – milk, gluten, peanut and hazelnut.
EU legislation stipulates that manufacturers must label 14 allergens as constituent ingredients in pre-packed foods. The law requires peanuts, nuts, soybeans, mustard, eggs, lupin, milk, fish, cereals containing gluten, sesame, celery, sulphur dioxide, molluscs and crustaceans to be labelled.
‘Best Practice’ guidelines established by thee FSA in 2006 cover unintentional allergen contamination in foods. Labelling can include statements such as ‘may contain traces of nuts’.
Due to the lack of internationally agreed action levels to protect the allergic population from the unintentional presence of allergens in food, this is “an important UK study”, Sarah Hardy, manager of the Food Allergy and Intolerance Research Programme at the FSA, said.
Best practice, not regulation
“Currently there is no consensus on the levels of allergens required to provoke allergic reactions in consumers sensitive to various foods. The aim of this document is therefore to set out a qualitative approach to allergen management and risk assessment,” Hardy told FoodNavigator.
“It will offer a valuable insight into the different types of advisory statements used on pre-packed foods and the levels of allergens present in these products,” she said.
“It is anticipated this may help to establish whether the use of certain advisory statements are linked to the level of allergen present and indicate whether different types of statements convey different levels of risk to the consumer,” she said.
“This will ensure that food produced or sold in the UK is safe for food allergic and intolerant consumers to eat by enabling them to make informed choices,” she added.
Current ‘Best Practice’ guidelines aim to “help industry manage, not regulate, cross contamination,” Hardy said.
The FSA noted that there is a “lack of standardisation and inconsistencies” with use of the guidelines.
Survey hopes to spark vigilance in allergen management
“We don’t know how big the problem of cross-contamination is across the UK and we hope that the survey will help to answer this question,” Hardy said.
While the key principles of allergen management apply across industry at all levels, she detailed that a more complex management plan is needed for companies with multiple product production working with a variety of ingredients.
It is ideal to dedicate production facilities when working with allergens to avoid cross-contamination, she said, however this is not always possible so careful management needs to be the focus.
The results of the survey will be published online on the FSA’s website in May 2013.