Improved detection methods for allergenic substances

Experts deal with the development of analytical methods for the detection of allergenic substances in foods at a joint event of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and the Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority (LGL) which ends today in Berlin. The labelling of allergens on food packages is prescribed by law. Its control is only possible by means of appropriate detection methods. "Allergies increase in the population; the detection of known allergenic substances, therefore, plays an important role in consumer health protection," said BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. During the two-day workshop "Allergens in Foods - Current Developments in Analytics" in Berlin possibilities for first test systems were presented.

In highly allergenic persons traces of a foodstuff are sufficient to cause a life threatening allergic shock. One of the goals of the National Action Plan against Allergies of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV) is, therefore, to improve the labelling of allergenic substances on foodstuffs so that those concerned can protect themselves better against these substances. The currently applicable rule stipulates that traces of allergenic substances must be labelled if there is a risk that they may get unintentionally into the product during food production. This is, for instance, the case if on the same production line two different types of chocolate are produced one after the other, of which the first contains nuts. Nut traces may then reach the second chocolate. Whether these traces are actually present may currently be detected with official methods for hazelnuts as well as for peanuts and celeriac. For many other allergenic components these detection methods are, however, not available. The producers therefore label their products, for precautionary reasons, with general statements such as “May contain traces of hazelnuts”. For allergenic persons general labelling means an unnecessary restriction in respect of their food choice.

Two research projects are now to remedy the situation. The Bavarian LGL currently develops, together with other scientific institutions, a rapid detection system for the quantitative determination of allergenic substances in foodstuffs in the entire production chain based on the PCR method (polymerase chain reaction). At present the developed methods are tested in practice. BfR works with two project partners on the development and standardisation of rapid tests for simple application for the screening of allergens. Extracts of the food to be examined are applied to a test strip which shows within ten minutes whether an allergen is included and, if so, which one. A specially equipped laboratory for a first rapid result is not necessary; the test can be made on site. Furthermore, new, modern analytical methods are elaborated which detect the hereditary material of the allergenic substances with a high reliability, even in intensely processed foodstuffs. In this respect the hereditary material is copied specifically several million times in the PCR. Advantage: all reagents needed for this purpose are generally available; the methods can hence be applied all over the world by producers and control experts. The methods are, moreover, to measure with such a high sensitivity that allergens can even be detected in traces of ppm (parts per million). Furthermore, different allergens can be analysed in parallel, including those which were only difficult to detect so far. A system was developed at BfR in the past which can detect the most frequent allergens in chocolate in parallel in only one analysis.

Next year the focus will be on the standardisation of the developed “screening” processes. Because only robust and standardised methods can be applied by as many manufacturers as possible in production and by the public authorities in official inspections.

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. BfR engages in research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

About the LGL

The Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority (LGL) is the central specialised authority of the Free State of Bavaria for food safety, health, veterinary affairs and occupational safety / product security. It monitors the health situation of the population and promotes preventive measures. Furthermore, it investigates the quality and safety of foods and feeds as well as of products. In the field of animal health LGL makes important contributions to animal epidemic control and the development of vaccines.

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