TNO research lays foundation for more reliable allergen information on food labels

Thema:
Chronic inflammatory diseases
6 February 2024

As of January 1, 2024, the Netherlands has implemented a new allergen policy. Exposure standards have been set and regulations on warning about the potential (unintended) presence of substances that can cause allergy (allergens) on food labels have been tightened. This will make the presence and absence of a warning for allergic consumers significantly more reliable.

By January 1, 2026, all producers of pre-packaged foods must comply with the new regulations. The new policy is based on recommendations from the WHO (World Health Organization) and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). Research conducted by TNO and UMC Utrecht on the sensitivity of individuals with food allergies and their eating habits formed the basis for these scientific recommendations.

Allergens in food pose a danger to people with food allergies. Approximately 3% of the population has a food allergy, totalling over half a million people in the Netherlands. Allergens present as ingredients used in food products must be clearly displayed on the product label by the manufacturer.

Allergens can also end up in food unintentionally. Producers and suppliers of food often warn about the potential unintended presence of allergens (e.g., ‘may contain traces of ...’ or ‘made in a factory that also processes ...’). Previously, there were no regulations for when or when not to warn about this risk. As a result, many products that do not include warnings do contain allergens and many products that do not have allergens still feature warnings.

Prof. Geert Houben, TNO Principal Scientist Food Allergy and Immunotoxicology and Professor Food-borne Risk Factors for Allergic and Inflammatory Diseases at UMC Utrecht and Utrecht University, explains: ‘As food-allergic consumers can, as a result, not draw any conclusion from the presence or absence of a warning, this leads to potentially life-threatening situations. With the new regulation, that is no longer the case. The new policy prescribes that warnings about the potential and unintended presence of allergens may only be used, and must be used, when a product poses an actual risk to people with food allergies.’

TNO and UMC Utrecht developed knowledge and methods

For over 10 years, TNO and UMC Utrecht have worked together to achieve reliable allergen labelling to reduce risks for people with food allergies. Research conducted by these organisations and their partner Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) of the University of Nebraska (USA) and their databases, data analysis methods and analytical results made it possible to calculate safe standards for food allergens. This paved the way for the establishment of international standards and procedures for warning about the intended and potential unintended presence of allergens in food.

Milestone

Central to the research is an international database managed by TNO with over 3,500 sensitivity thresholds of individual food-allergic patients. The WHO/FAO expert committee recognised this research and the TNO database as ‘the most comprehensive and best described source available, both in terms of content and curation, with supportive peer-reviewed publications’.

As such, the committee based the establishment of safe standards (Reference Doses) on analyses of the TNO database conducted and published by TNO. Using these standards, producers will know exactly when a label should or should not include a warning about the potential unintended presence of an allergen, and individuals with food allergies can be confident that they can rely on the information on a label.

Geert Houben: ‘Establishing these standards has been an ongoing topic of discussion for years now. We are therefore delighted that this new policy, that sees the Netherlands leading the way in Europe and the rest of the world, is being implemented. Research by TNO and UMC Utrecht showed that 4% of food-allergic people end up in the emergency room each year due to an allergic reaction. When you take into account the number of people with food allergy in the Netherlands, that would equal over one every half hour! Fortunately, that number is guaranteed to go down with this new regulation on allergen warnings on food labels. This really is a milestone!’

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