Food Allergens – A Growing Problem for Producers and Retailers

There have always been those individuals who are prone to react adversely to certain foodstuffs. However, in the past, it was a far easier matter for them to avoid consuming the particular edibles responsible for such reactions. So, why has it become so much more difficult to do so today? The answer is that there has been a major shift in our lifestyles. No longer do we dine almost exclusively on home-cooked meals prepared from fresh produce, but, instead, we frequently resort to heavily processed food in which unsuspected allergens may lurk.

Their effects are, at best, unpleasant, but, in extreme cases, can actually result in a fatal anaphylactic episode. It is, therefore, especially important for susceptible individuals to be made aware of what they might be exposed to when purchasing processed foodstuffs. For their protection, governments in most countries, including South Africa, have introduced legislation that compels producers to clearly display details of any food allergens that are known to be present in their products, or whose possible presence in them cannot be excluded.

Among the more common of these are milk and its various derivatives; both ground and tree nuts; foods that contain gluten, such as wheat, oats, and rye; crustaceans, such as lobsters, crabs, and prawns; eggs and molluscs like oysters and mussels; to name just a few. Even small traces of these can be sufficient to trigger a reaction, and so, producers must screen their products carefully in order to confirm the presence or absence of food allergens.

While some of these may have been purposely included in a recipe as a means to provide the desired flavour or texture, producers must often purchase their raw ingredients from multiple sources. It is, therefore, their responsibility to test the composition of these items also. Cross-contamination is also a risk that could see traces of potentially harmful ingredients left on a work surface accidentally included in a product that would otherwise have been free of any food allergens.

Tests for these substances would once have been both complex and time-consuming, and were not always as reliable as one might have hoped. Today, new technologies have led to more sensitive and reproducible procedures that have made it possible, even for non-technical personnel, to analyse multiple samples and constituents in a fraction of the time previously required. This has been especially beneficial for producers. Although it is important that they confirm or exclude the presence of food allergens, it is also important for them to avoid any undue delays in the release of their finished products for distribution.

While the precautionary actions on the part of the producers have done much to limit the dangers to those with allergies, there is still much that needs to be done. Among the nation’s restaurant owners and the personnel who work in their kitchens, there is still only a limited awareness of allergies and their potential danger. Clearly, further legislation will be needed if this is to change and, in the meantime, the onus is on the client to ensure dining out safely. For the producers, however, such legislation already applies and, to aid them in the detection and assay of a wide range of food allergens, IEPSA supplies world-class reagents and equipment

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