Eating About Town: the innovation strengthening safety and confidence for food allergy sufferers

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Food allergies are on the rise around the world. A study in the BMJ found that hospital admissions due to allergy have increased steadily across all ages between 1998 and 2018, from 10.0 to 28.0 admissions per 100,000 people per year, an increase of 179%. When the authors broke the data down by age, they found the greatest increase was among people younger than 15 years. In this cohort, admissions rose from 2.1 to 9.2 admissions per 100,000 people per year, an increase of 339%.

Data always belies the human story. On 17 July 2016 Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died after eating sesame seeds baked into the dough of a baguette bought from a sandwich shop. Under UK law at the time, there was no obligation for pre-packed food made and sold on the same premises to list their ingredients, and so there was no way of knowing what was in the meal.

Natasha’s Law

On 1 October 2022, following a campaign by the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation set up by the Ednan-Laperouse family, the law changed. Today, pre-packed food made and sold on the same premises (also known as Prepacked for Direct Sale food – PPDS) must be provided with full ingredient lists with clear allergen labelling.

There is also a similar campaign following the death of Owen Carey for restaurants to put more appropriate and accurate information about the allergens in their food at the start of the main menu.

The purpose behind both campaigns is that all food bought outside the home should be clearly labelled to ensure food allergy sufferers are able to go about their lives freely and safely. However, there is a balance between reducing risk and improving sufferers quality of life: labelling foods with every possible allergen that could be present in a food could leave sufferers with very few options. It is therefore necessary that an equilibrium between these two extremes is found.

Here are some ways in which the industry is harnessing innovation to improve allergy inducing ingredient labelling:

Tracking allergens

One of the obvious and essential options to manage allergens in kitchens is effective protocols that track their passage through the food chain. Many of the solutions to keep consumers safe will be business practices which control tasks in the kitchen and monitor the food produced. Such subject matter is excluded from patentability in many jurisdictions, but software tools developed as part of these processes may be patentable if they have a real-world technical effect. This has already been demonstrated by BIA.Studio which has developed a system for building allergen free meals from available ingredients, based on an archive of recipes filtered by dietary requirement.

Removing allergens through reformulation

Another option is to reformulate recipes to exclude allergens wherever possible. Not only does this make the reformulated food safer, but it removes the risk of that allergen being present from all food prepared in the kitchen. At a stroke there is no requirement to include the removed allergen on the label. Of course, reformulating food to remove components without reducing the quality of the food or changing its feeling is not always straight forward: removing dairy from a ragu is simple, but from a béchamel sauce, less so. Removing an ingredient from a formulation can alter the flavour or mouthfeel of a food, or negatively affect its nutritional value.

Solving these technical problems can require a lot of research and ingenuity, and a solution for one food often cannot be directly applied to another food to achieve a similar technical benefit. However, solutions of this type are by far the most effective way to make a food safe for consumption by allergy sufferers.

Inventing allergen-free alternatives

A third option is the development and use of allergen free alternatives to common allergy-inducing foods. This issue is most advanced in the field of baby milk, where products based on cow’s milk have been developed where the allergenic proteins are denatured with heat.

Scaling down technology to help small businesses

For larger companies, embracing processes and products which keep customers safe makes good business sense. But how can smaller enterprises improve their catering offering for clients who suffer with allergens? Testing is an essential part of any allergen control programme, but is difficult to achieve in small kitchen settings.

Often small businesses rely on larger, trusted, suppliers to carry out this procedure. It would be better if quicker, smaller scale tests could be used so producers of food for sale on sight would effectively test products as they entered the kitchen. It is anticipated – as we have already witnessed in other areas of the medical sector – that the presence of smartphone-based testing technology will grow. Developments in this area are already underway. For example, researchers have recently developed a test utilising the camera on a smartphone to identify the presence of gluten in a food within a matter of hours. This small and fast testing capability could be revolutionary in enabling product control in kitchens or other food preparation sites.

Demand will drive innovative in this area, as legislation tightens and the percentage of people who have food allergies rise, benefitting society and business. The good news is that new methods and processes to deliver still more accurate allergen labelling is within our reach.

Barker Brettell has a dedicated Food & Drink Sector group that can assist and advise you on how to achieve the best protection for your invention. To continue the conversation, please contact the author or your usual Barker Brettell attorney.