Last November I told you about an Allergy Task Force that was put together with researchers around the globe including the widely renowned Stephen Taylor from the University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP). The task force announced this November, after a meeting in Nice, that they would have information about the threshold amounts for peanut, milk and egg by the end of 2012.
To put it into perspective, we already have a threshold for gluten which is 20 ppm (parts per million). Anything under 20 ppm is considered safe by the leading scientists in gluten research, even when taking into account eating many products under 20 ppm during the day – the cumulative effect. Following this accepted level, the government can then create labeling laws that specify the threshold and food producers follow this in the labeling/marketing of their own products. While not yet law in the US, the guideline for producers is that less than 20 ppm of gluten (wheat, barley and rye) may be labeled as “gluten free”.
So what does that mean for food allergens? The task force has already been reviewing and conducting scientific research to determine at what level food allergens must be present to create an allergic reaction. If, say, it is determined that the threshold for peanut is 10 ppm, only food products less than 10 ppm could be labeled as peanut free.
It could also help determine the “may contain” statements. Perhaps on occasion, a product tests at over 10 ppm. A food manufacturer could then put a “may contain peanut” on the label. If a product consistently tested above 10 ppm, the “may contain” may no longer be appropriate because peanut is consistently in the product so it must be labeled “contains peanut” or peanut must be placed on the ingredient list. Levels could also be used to determine what “traces” are vs containing peanut or it may be determined that labeling for “traces” is no longer appropriate and a product either contains or may contain an allergen.
Another consideration is that with advances in scientific testing, we can now test down to parts per billion of peanut protein. But if a product tests at 1 part per billion, it may be well below a threshold but cannot be labeled peanut free. This is sometimes why your favorite product that was safe at the grocery store last week now has a may contain label on it and you no longer trust as safe for your family. Just because we can test for something, doesn’t mean that it is useful.
Australians are going through this problem right now because their gluten free labeling law is not at 20 ppm but rather at the lowest level currently scientifically testable. So products testing at 3 ppm for gluten can no longer have gluten free labeling and Celiacs are losing their ability to know what is actually safe under 20 ppm vs not allowed to be labelled. Their Celiac Association has called for a change to the law because this has become a serious issue for their members and their quality of life.
Altogether, I feel that thresholds are a good thing. For the consumer, they won’t have to guess anymore as to what labeling means nor should they have to phone producers to double check a confusing label. It may also mean that we have fewer consumers playing “Russian Roulette” with their food because they guess that a food manufacturer puts on a “may contain” only to cover themselves legally, when, in fact, the food may very well contain that protein.
For governments, they then have a definitive threshold that can be placed into labeling laws and therefore have the authority to recall products that are unsafe and/or conduct legal investigations and actions for producers disregarding the law.
For food producers, it means that they can also stop guessing and create specific sanitation and testing protocols for their products and food production lines. They can also label very specifically and if indeed they are putting blanket “may contains” on all of their products, they can stop doing that and allow more of their products to become available to allergic consumers.
If you’d like to know more details about the International Task Force, who’s on it and what they are trying to achieve, you can check out this page: http://www.ilsi.org/europe/pages/tf_foodallergy.aspx