Changes to Act Require Food Labels to Name Allergens Present

After a wait of more than 17 years, one of the additions to the regulations introduced by the department of health in 2010, which govern the labelling and advertising of foodstuffs, now requires manufacturers to ensure that all of their products display clearly legible information regarding the presence or possible presence of food allergens. In contrast to the delayed intestinal discomfort experienced by those individuals whose bodies are intolerant of certain foods, the response to an allergenic substance is immediate, will usually affect multiple body functions, and, in extreme cases, can actually prove fatal.

Not all changes and additions to the act, however, are aimed at providing protection for consumers against various food allergens. Others are designed to prevent spurious or misleading statements by producers. For example, boasting that their brand of olive oil is cholesterol-free when, in fact, no plant oils actually contain cholesterol, or claiming that a product is recommended or endorsed by a health practitioner.

Additional changes address the display of nutritional content and permitted additives, such as colourants, flavourings, and preservatives. However, it is those pertaining to food allergens that have been most welcomed by the consumer. These fall into three main groups, the first of which consists of natural substances commonly used to enhance flavour or texture. These include shellfish and other crustaceans, soya, eggs, milk, gluten, peanuts, and tree nuts, as well as certain cereals, such as barley, rye, and oats. Any of these could provoke a reaction in susceptible individuals, hence the importance of highlighting their presence.

Food allergens in the second group are not natural ingredients, but commonly used additives, such as the colourant tartrazine, the artificial flavouring known as monosodium glutamate or MSG, and the sulphites often used as a preservative in wine and fruit juices. Only a very small number of people are allergic to items in the third group, which includes meat, dried fruits, sesame seeds, and even avocados. Manufacturers need only disclose their presence if requested to do so by the department of health, an inspector, or a consumer.

While, in many cases, the food allergens present in a product are simply a requirement of the recipe, and so, their presence is known, it is those that may be introduced inadvertently that have the capacity to pose the greatest risk. Raw ingredients are frequently sourced from third parties and, in order to rule out the presence of any potentially harmful content, both in the raw materials and the finished product, it is essential for manufacturers to maintain a stringent programme of testing.

Because the demand for their products is always high, the tests used to detect food allergens need to be both rapid and reliable, so as not to unduly delay their release to the consumer. Once, such tests might have taken hours or even days, requiring extensive lab facilities and skilled technicians. Today, however, there are now test kits that employ rapid yet sensitive new technologies, and which can be performed in the workplace and require no special skill.

Among the companies producing the necessary kits and equipment is the industry leader, Neogen Europe Ltd. Its products are available in South Africa, from IEPSA, who also supply a range of additional immunological assay requirements for other purposes.

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