Sixty-six countries across 5 continents require by law that certain allergenic ingredients must be declared on labels when used in pre-packaged foods. However, across the different countries and regions, there are significant variations in which allergens must be labelled and how the labelling must be presented. A recent Open Access publication highlights approaches that could help to tackle the global problem of regulating food allergen labelling, including Precautionary Allergen Labelling (PAL).
PAL should be only used when a solid evidence-based risk management plan is in place. The authors suggest a quantitative approach to PAL, such as the Allergen Bureau’s VITAL 3.0, could provide an effective risk communication strategy, widening consumers’ food choices and improving their confidence in food labelling. They propose that an internationally recognized organization (such as Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] or Codex Alimentarius Commission Committee on Food Labelling [Codex]), above regional regulators and Governments, could take the lead in implementing the VITAL system globally.
As an alternative to PAL, it is proposed that development and validation of highly sensitive analytical detection methods would overcome the need for risk stratification. For example, targeted liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) methods have been proposed as alternatives to enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) and DNA-based methods, due to the high accuracy and reliability. However, some limitations of the LC-MS/MS methods include:
- not rapid enough to be used along the food production lines for verification of sanitation, validation of minimised cross-contact and thus to minimise the use of PAL
- expensive instruments require specialised operators
- the methods are currently subject to matrix issues.
In summarising the possible approaches, the authors urge international organizations, regulators, and food industries to collaborate on implementation of harmonised mandatory requirements for labelling of allergen in food products in all countries. Development of sensitive detection methods should also be prioritised to reduce the levels of uncertainty that underpin current widespread and unhelpful use of PAL. As a strategy of last resort, PAL should be applied with global consistency based on a solid technical system such as VITAL 3.0.