Food Safety Focus (9th Issue, April 2007) – Food Safety Platform
Allergens in Food
Reported by Mr. Arthur YAU, Scientific Officer
Risk Communication Section, Centre for Food Safety
Life can be difficult for people suffering from food allergy. While most people can enjoy at will common food items like soft drinks, nuts, bread, noodles and dim sum, the situation for allergy sufferers is rather different. Many allergy sufferers have to do their own "detective work" to figure out whether substances they are allergic to are present in the food they wish to eat. If their detective work fails, they will suffer badly as a result. Studies in Europe showed that about one to three percent of the adults and four to six percent of children suffer from some types of food allergies.
What are Food Allergens?
Food allergens are food that can cause food allergies, where they cause an immunologic response in sensitive individuals. There are more than 70 types of foods that are reported to be allergenic. They include cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, tree nuts, peanuts and soybeans and their products. In addition, some food additives can also cause food allergy. The most common one is sulphite. These eight groups of allergens cause the bulk of the food allergy cases. Besides, people may also have abnormal reactions to foods without involving an immunologic response, such as those individuals who are intolerant to lactose may develop diarrhoea after taking milk. These reactions are more accurately described as food intolerance.
Illustrations: Examples of food that are allergenic
Why are Food Allergens so Significant to Some People?
People who suffer from food allergy may develop adverse reactions to the food allergen, even in minute quantity, that are otherwise perfectly normal to the rest of the population. In the worst case, anaphylaxis, which is a severe systemic allergic reaction involving many parts of the body like airway, lung, gastrointestinal tract and skin can occur minutes after contacting an allergen. Immediate medical attention is necessary in these cases to prevent serious consequences. Other common allergic reactions include vomiting, abdominal pain, asthma, rhinitis, angioedema, urticaria, etc. Although not fatal, they do inflict sufferings to allergic persons.
Why is it Difficult to Tell Whether a Food Contains Allergens?
In many cases, the allergenic substances are often major ingredients in prepackaged food and therefore their presence should have been clearly indicated on the ingredient list. However, the allergenic substances sometimes lurk behind other names in the ingredient list. For instances, lecithin, an emulsifier, can be produced from soybean whereas whey protein originates from milk. To make things more complicated, the traces of allergens may get carried over into the next product manufactured on the same production line, and therefore contaminating the product which normally does not contain allergens. The same scenario can also apply to the manufacturing of food ingredients.
How can the Food Trade Address the Issue?
Food manufacturers should ensure that the labelling is accurate and fulfils the local regulatory requirement on the labelling of food allergens. Accuracy of food allergen labelling can be improved by (1) knowing whether the ingredients and food additives used contain allergens; (2) careful production planning, prevention of allergen contamination and proper cleansing procedures; (3) indicating on the label when contamination with allergen is unavoidable.
With the enactment of the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) (Amendment) Regulation in July 2004, all prepackaged food are required to indicate the presence of the eight allergens according to the requirements of the Regulation. The three-year grace period will lapse on 9 July 2007. People who suffer from food allergy will have less detective work to do and have an easier life!