Allergens in food: scientific advice updated

EFSA has updated its scientific advice on food allergens. The Authority’s Scientific Opinion looks in detail at all the allergenic products and substances whose presence in food must be indicated on labelling, according to EU law. These include cereals containing gluten, milk, eggs, nuts, peanuts, soybeans, fish, crustaceans, molluscs, celery, lupin, sesame, mustard and sulphites.

The Opinion is based on a review of all published data on the prevalence of food allergies in Europe. For each food product or substance on the EU list of allergens, information is given on:

  • the prevalence of allergies in unselected populations;
  • proteins identified as food allergens;
  • cross-reactivities;
  • the effects of food processing on the allergenicity of the food or ingredient;
  • methods for detecting allergens and allergenic foods, including mass spectrometry and DNA methods as well as the more common immunological approach;
  • doses observed to trigger adverse reactions in sensitive individuals.

EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) points out that the prevalence of food allergies is difficult to establish because of a scarcity of studies available for some geographical areas and the use of different methodologies to gather prevalence data. However, using food challenges as a criterion for diagnosis, the prevalence of food allergies across Europe has been estimated at around 1% for both adults and children.

About 75% of allergic reactions among children are caused by egg, peanut, cows’ milk, fish and nuts. About 50% of allergic reactions among adults are to fruits of the latex group and of the Rosaceae family (which includes apples, pears cherries, raspberries, strawberries and almonds), vegetables of the Apiaceae family (which includes celery, carrots and aromatic herbs) and various nuts and peanuts.

The NDA Panel notes that the desirability of determining thresholds for certain allergenic foods has attracted much attention from regulatory bodies, consumer associations and industry. The Scientific Opinion summarises the available risk assessment approaches that could assist risk management decisions on allergen labelling. These are: the traditional risk assessment using the no observed adverse effect level (NOAEL) approach and uncertainty factors; the bench mark dose (BMD) and margin of exposure (MoE) approach; and probabilistic models. The Panel emphasises that the purpose of the risk assessment – for example, exemption from labelling – and the level of risk which may be acceptable, are risk management decisions, and therefore are outside EFSA’s remit.The Panel recommends that food consumption surveys be adapted to gather data on food consumption patterns in food allergic subjects and to investigate how these relate to the general, non-food allergic population.

EFSA’s Scientific Opinion relates to immune-mediated food allergies, to coeliac disease, and to adverse reactions to sulphites in food. It does not address non-immune mediated adverse reactions to food, often known as food intolerances. The document updates EFSA’s previous Opinion on allergens, which was published in 2004.

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