The meeting, to be held in Cambridge on 26 November, is the first step in the agency’s examination of how external factors may impact people’s allergic reactions to different foods.
According to the FSA, the ultimate goal is to determine which levels of allergens in foods do not pose a “significant risk” to health. New research will be carried out to look at the effect of other factors such as alcohol, exercise or asthma on food allergies.
Potential contractors will be invited to submit proposals to explore the quantitative relationship between external factors and the threshold and severity of reaction in people with a food allergy, said the agency.
The information will ultimately be used to modify how allergens are labelled on food products, and to decide on the best practices that can be undertaken by risk managers to avoid contamination in food plants.
The FSA’s ongoing allergen and food intolerance initiative already aims to discourage vague and defensive warnings on food products.
A major concern has been the proliferation of 'may contain' labels, which are used so widely on pre-packed foods that many consumers are unable to assess the risks and simply ignore them.
Current EU allergen labelling requirements are set out in European Directive (2003/89/EC). These came into force in the UK in November 2004 and require companies to label all pre-packed foods if they contain any of the 12 listed allergenic foods as an ingredient.
These are cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanuts, soybeans, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seeds, and sulphites.
The FSA says it bases its policies and advice on the best available science, and uses the results of agency-funded research projects as a source of evidence to underpin policy decisions.
November’s meeting will bring together allergy clinicians and specialists to examine what the FSA needs from research going forward.
It will allow potential contractors to discuss experimental approaches and to fine tune the parameters of the research to make sure it meets the agency’s purposes and is also clinically feasible, said the FSA yesterday.
According to Allergy UK, 45 per cent of the UK population face food sensitivities at some point in their lives, and 2 per cent suffer from a food allergy.
There are between five and 15 food allergy-related deaths each year, according to the FSA.
The UK free-from food market is being driven by increased public awareness of food allergies and intolerance, and has already enjoyed sales growth of over 300 per cent since 2000, according to market analyst Mintel.
The market, which includes dairy-, gluten- and wheat-free products, was worth £90m in 2005 and is set to continue its path of strong growth, said Mintel.
And according to a report by Euromonitor released last year, the UK market for gluten-free foods alone amounted to £47m (€70m) in 2006, making it the third largest market in the world for these products, after the US and Italy.
Sales of lactose-free products (dairy products, ice cream, baby foods) increased by 29 per cent since 2002, reaching £23m (€34m) in 2006.