Q&A: Is There A ‘Safe Level’ for Peanut in Foods?
Allergic Living magazine is closely following scientific investigations of whether it’s possible to identify a “safe level” of peanut in manufactured foods. Editor Gwen Smith wrote a feature article on this controversial topic in the Winter 11-12 issue of the magazine.
Following are some key points from her interview with lead investigators Dr. Steve Taylor and Dr. Joseph Baumert of the Food Allergy and Resource Program (FARRP).
Bio information: Dr. Taylor is a food scientist and the director of FARRP at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with degrees in food science and biochemistry. Dr. Baumert is a food scientist and co-director of FARRP, with degrees in animal science and food science.
Gwen Smith: Gentlemen, thank you for your time today. Let’s start with the bigger picture for AL readers: What is the purpose of establishing a safe level of peanut for the peanut-allergic?
Steve Taylor: The purpose would be to establish target levels for the food industry and for public health agencies such as the Food & Drug Administration to use to guide product labeling.
GS: And you’ve spoken before of the concerns for consumers with allergies in the family ….
Joseph Baumert: This is very important. What we see is with the proliferation of these precautionary or “may contain” labels. Without some benchmark level that regulatory agencies or food companies can go by to know when there is a legitimate need to use that type of advisory labeling, it continues to proliferate. It’s to the point now where consumers are confused as to whether there’s actual risk involved.
On the consumer side, as an endpoint, we’d like for those individuals to be able to feel confident that if a product has a precautionary label on it, there’s a definite reason that they should avoid. Whereas, if it doesn’t have that [may contain] label, it’s because it does not fit that benchmark dose below which the vast majority of allergic individuals would not react if they bought that product. That would open up a lot more choices for allergic consumers.
ST: I think you can appreciate the predicament the food company faces without thresholds. They really don’t want anybody getting sick from their product.
But without the guidance of thresholds, they may slap terminology like “manufactured on shared equipment with peanuts” or “manufactured in the same facility as peanuts”, or “may contain peanuts” on a whole litany of products where the risk of peanut exposure is really pretty small. Now, we have to make sure that it’s so small that there would be almost no risk of a reaction.
GS: Now if I’m the average parent of a peanut-allergic child, probably I’d probably contend that the safe level of peanut in a food product is zero. But for you two, as the experts on food science, you would say that, no, a level of zero isn’t possible. Can you explain to readers, who aren’t food scientists, why that’s so?