Testing food allergens

Common ways to test for food allergens in food manufacturing

While global market demand for free-from food products is increasing, undeclared and mislabelled allergens, sulphites and gluten, throughout the supply chain, continue to be the number one cause of consumer product recalls. This is of major concern since the number of individuals affected by life-threatening allergies is on the rise, especially in children.  Unfortunately, there is no cure for a food allergy; avoidance of allergenic food(s) is the only way to prevent an allergic reaction.

Food labels are an important source of information for those individuals with food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances. As part of a robust allergen management system, testing for allergens lends to  confidence in a product’s safety, provides information for label compliance and helps to prevent costly recalls.

Testing can be used to confirm the allergen status of raw materials at receipt, to verify cleaning processes, and to evaluate finished products.  An array of test methods exist for this purpose, including but not limited to, immunochemical methods such as ELISA or lateral flow devices, DNA-based methods, such as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), Mass spectrometry (MS), and other non-specific methods such as Protein tests, ATP and visual inspection to verify cleaning.  The choice of test method is very important and depends on the purpose of the test, the type of sample, food matrix, processing effects, desired turn-around time, availability of equipment, skill level of person doing the analysis and cost.

ELISA and lateral flow devices are often used on-site at the production facility because results can be obtained quickly, costs are relatively low, and personnel can be easily trained to use these tests. In some circumstances of highly processed samples, PCR may be a better choice.  However, PCR testing requires specialized equipment and skilled technicians so is usually performed in a third-party testing lab. Mass spectrometry is yet another option but can be costly and like PCR this method requires specialized equipment and skilled personnel to perform the analysis.

Given the wide range of allergen testing options, advise should be sought from a technical expert, such as a local accredited laboratory or a reputable allergen test kit manufacturer. This will help ensure the best analytical approach is used  to verify and validate effective implementation of allergen controls, which all leads to increased consumer protection.

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