World’s biggest study of food allergies gets underway

7_Allergy_FoodsHylobates is one of the SME participants of the world’s biggest ever study of allergies known as the Integrated Approaches to Food Allergen and Allergy Risk Management (iFAAM) which officially got underway on 19 March. The €9million project spearheaded by the University of Manchester builds on an earlier €14.3 million research study and will involve the worlds leading experts in the UK, Europe, Australia and US. The parting point is the lack of evidence to either prevent food allergy developing or protect adequately those who are already allergic. The 38 partners iFAAM consortium will produce a standardised management process for food manufacturing companies and will also develop tools designed to enforce these regulations and produce evidence-based knowledge to inform new health advice on nutrition for pregnant women, babies and allergy sufferers.

Up to 20 million European citizens suffer from food allergy which may be triggered by a list of foods including milk, egg, peanuts, soya, wheat, tree nuts, mustard, lupin, fish, crustacean and molluscan shell fish and celery which have to be labelled irrespective of the level at which they are included in a recipe. However, management of food allergens that accidently find their way into foods which might otherwise be free of allergen, for example through the use of common processing equipment, remains problematic and often gives rise to precautionary “may contain” labels.

Professor Clare Mills, from the Allergy and Respiratory Centre of The University of Manchester’s Institute of Inflammation and Repair and based in the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, will head the study. Professor Mills said: “This is a massive research project which will have far reaching consequences for consumers and food producers. The evidence base and tools that result from this will support more transparent precautionary “may contain” labelling of allergens in foods which will make life easier for allergy sufferers as they try to avoid problem foods.”

Sue Hattersley, Head of the UK Food Standard’s Agency’s Allergy Branch said: “We anticipate that the information learned through iFAAM will help determine a more consistent approach to providing consumers with information, so they can make safe choices about the food they eat. Furthermore it will provide a greater insight into the development of food allergies. From an industry and regulatory perspective, it is expected that the results of the project will provide more guidance on the management of food allergens.”

New risk models will be built on pre-existing clinical data sets to support management of these allergens in a factory environment to minimise the use of such labels. Luca Bucchini, manager director of iFAAM partner Hylobates Consulting which will contribute to contamination modelling and in disseminating risk analysis methods to food industry and SMEs, said: “Managing food allergens is still a challenge for many food businesses, particularly smaller SMEs.  Better tools can benefit consumers with food allergies, including children.”

Other researchers will look at tools to measure allergens in food to allow validation and monitoring of allergen management plans. Other strands of the three year project will seek to predict who is likely to suffer a severe reaction, identify whether early introduction of allergenic foods and other nutritional factors may be protective against development of allergies later on in life.


Hylo’s Research Team

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What car safety can teach to food safety

The skills of a food safety expert, or a food risk assessor, are quite distant from those of an expert of car safety.  For cars, the risks are not of a microbial, or chemical, nature as those that worry food safety types.

Nevertheless, as in the case of nuclear safety, a recent article in The Economist on car safety provides some thought-provoking inspiration.

The first aspect of interest is the race to build more safety into cars. The article cites Volvo’s self-driving V40 car, and Nissan’s future car: the new Nissan will anticipate driver’s next moves. The incentive is clear. As the article’s author puts it “in the short term, novel safety devices can help carmakers squeeze more profit out of buyers.”

A market-based approach to safety has also been advocated for foods. Food businesses offer us organic, fat-free, socially responsible, premium, PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) foods; why can’t they offer us also food which is safer than the competition?  There is of course a legal catch, at least in the EU; you cannot claim that a food has characteristics that all similar food products have. Since all food has to be safe by law (if it not safe, it cannot stay on the market), claiming your food product is safe (or safer) is akin claiming that your food is superior when it merely has characteristics that all food has, or needs to have. So marketing food safety should be prohibited. Surely, though, determined marketers, clever consultants and smart lawyers can get around the prohibition.

But there is a more serious catch, which the article explains in reference to safety devices:

But drivers soon come to expect them as standard, as do regulators….When this happens, such gadgetry becomes just another manufacturing cost“.

This is perhaps a reason for “safe food marketing” never to have been a workable solution.

There is however a more encouraging note in the article. Modern technology has helped reduce car fatalities: according to the article, in 2010 US car accident mortality was the lowest since 1949. Though, with a death toll of over 33,000, there is still much to do. In many ways, this reminds the successes, and failures, of food safety.

What is most inspiring comes from Volvo. Its safety-research chief,  Thomas Broberg said that their “aim is that by 2020 no one will ever be killed or seriously hurt driving their latest models“. No matter how “stupid” the driver is. In the food sector, where blaming the consumer is still state-of-the art risk communication, this is refreshing.

Food businesses have total safety built in regulations – yet, the food safety system, occasionally, still fails. Perhaps, food trade associations, or individual companies, should give themselves a 2020 goal similar to Volvo‘s.

_ Luca Bucchini, Managing Director –

What nuclear safety can teach food safety

Doubtless, foodborne pathogens and contamination have caused more deaths and disease than civil nuclear technology. Luckily, however, producing safe food – or even mostly safe food – is a much easier task than managing a nuclear reactor. A recent article on The Economist provides interesting insights of what nuclear – and food – safety have in common.

The article debates the Fukushima disaster, and sums it up this way:

the equipment was “of an old design. The risks they faced had not been well analysed. The operating company was poorly regulated and did not know what was going on. The operators made mistakes. The representatives of the safety inspectorate fled. Some of the equipment failed. The establishment repeatedly played down the risks and suppressed information…

This could be a food company responsible for an outbreak – happens all the time. Old equipment, lack of proper risk analysis, bad management, lax regulation, human error, equipment failure, no communication of risks.

Philippe Jamet, of France’s nuclear regulator, says something food safety people should listen to: often safety people have a shortfall of imagination, it has not happened so it can’t happen. In his words, “If you had asked me a year ago about an accident in which multiple units were left without power and cooling. I would have said it was not credible.

A good lesson follows:

The need to keep questioning things—from the details of maintenance procedures to one’s sense of the worst that could go wrong—is at the heart of a successful safety culture. …the example of a worker noticing that a diesel generator has been switched off. It is not enough to switch it back on. You also have to ask how and why it got switched off, and what other consequences that may have had. When you have got to the root of it, you not only have to change procedure but also to make sure that all other similar plants know about the problem and how to solve it.

Keep questioning things, rather than assuming that the standard is fine, is important in food safety, as is the food safety culture across the organization.

There’s a final interesting piece, especially to countries that, as their key safety message, keep telling consumers to buy national to be absolutely safe:

In many places, and particularly in Japan, the industry has felt a need to tell the public that nuclear power is safe in some absolute way…..

and after disaster:

If the Japanese nuclear establishment—industry and regulators alike—wants to earn trust, it must be seen to be learning every lesson it can. It must admit how little it previously deserved trust and explain clearly how it will do better in future. Even then, such trust will not always be given.

This seems a very good remark for many food risk managers and communicators. There is a lesson for any national food authority, or industry, which has failed. More generally, complacency has no place in the nuclear, but also in the food safety industry.

– Luca Bucchini, Managing Director –

Sorbitol death is wake-up call for Internet retailers

In Barletta, a town with 91,000 inhabitants in South-East Italy, a woman has died, and two have been hospitalized after ingesting a vial which seems to have contained sorbitol. According to Carlo Locatelli, of the Poisons Center in Pavia, Italy, which is one of Italy’s leading Poisons Centers, the patients developed methemoglobinemia, a condition in which oxygen cannot be captured by red blood cells. Fortunately, the two surviving patients were saved by prompt administration of methylene blue, a colour dye, which also reverses methemoglobinemia .

Sorbitol is a polyol which naturally occurs in fruit, and is widely used in candies and other low-calorie products. From the outset, the symptomatology suggested that nitrates could be responsible for the tragic deaths. According to Italy’s Ministry of Health, there is no information suggesting product contamination. Nevertheless, the Italian police squad assigned to food safety matters, the NAS, have seized over 1,000 tons of food-grade sorbitol at Cargill’s plants in Northern Italy but have apparently ordered no product testing. The implicated sorbitol was manufactured at Cargill’s plant in Rovigo, in Northern Italy. The most recent media reports indicate that the product was 70% sodium nitrite, and it is unclear how it could have been mistaken for sorbitol. News that implicated an industry-grade sorbitol lot (sorbitol is also used for manufacturing plastics, etc) are not confirmed.

It is early to say what the root cause of the problem was, or what failed in the system that should protect patients, and to separate the root cause from the inevitable legal blame-game that follows tragedies.

The doctors administering the sorbitol-based test seem to have purchased the product from eBay, which has expressed sorrow and halted globally the sales of sorbitol. It is unclear if a recall should follow, or if it will. There’s no basis at this time to suggest that food companies should recall sorbitol-containing products; however, they can trace their sorbitol to exclude the affected lot is involved. Moreover, they should follow closely the events.

Cargill has issued a press release in Italian (well done, and the loss of website formatting means their crisis team had to act quickly), explaining that the lot was manufactured at their site in February 2010, and since packaged elsewhere. The product conformed to tests when it left the production site.

As we wait for further news, it is still unclear how the product was sold over ebay.

For the moment, this tragedy seems to show that Internet retailers, when selling foods or food ingredients, are food business operators, and should ensure the safety of their products – much like grocery retailers do – and issuing recalls when necessary.  eBay seems to be behaving like a responsible food business. Others, like Amazon, should start doing the same even if they think they’re not food businesses.

– Luca Bucchini, Managing Director –

2011 PlantLIBRA project meeting to be held in May on Dracula’s homeland

Hylobates Consulting is happy to announce that in less than two month the 2nd PlantLIBRA project meeting will take place. Our  Project Management Team is working hard on these days to tie up loose ends for the organization of the event, and make it as relevant and scientifically exciting as we can.

This year, the congress which annually brings together all the partners contributing to PlantLIBRA’s development and success will be held in Brasov, placed in the well-known Romanian region of Transylvania.

The 2nd project meeting hosted by the our Romanian partner, the Transilvania University of Brasov, will take place between 17-20 May.

This international congress will also help the Coordinator, Prof. Restani of the University of Milan, to assess the progress of PlantLIBRA, ten months after the project start-up in June, against the objectives agreed with the EC.

The tight schedule of the 4 day-event include plenary sessions to discuss the first year results, WP meetings, to interact with policy-marks, stakeholders, other scientists and a dedicated session to discuss the latest news from the world of botanicals and policy- making.

Hylobates Consulting would like to thank Dr Mihaela Badea from the Universitatea TRANSILVANIA din Brasov for her help in the organisation of the meeting, and wishes this PlantLIBRA annual congress to be a key event to achieve the project goals – thanks to the participation of all partners and guests.

Sonia

PlantLIBRA Management Team

Hylobates intervista 35 persone in Italia per il progetto Foodrisc

Patrick Wall, coordinatore di FoodRisC

Hylobates Consulting è uno dei quattordici partner del Progetto FoodRisC (Food Risk Communication –perceptions and communication of food risk/benefits across Europe – in italiano “Comunicazione del Rischiodegli Alimenti – percezioni e comunicazione dei rischi e benefici degli alimenti in Europa”), finanziatodalla Comunità Europea nell’ambito del 7° Programma Quadro.

Il progetto ha una durata triennale ed ha l’obiettivo di elaborare una mappa delle reti e delle fonti di informazione che contribuiscono all acomunicazione dei rischi e dei benefici degli alimenti in Europa. Il consorzio che gestisce il progetto ècostituito da istituti di ricerca, PMI, organizzazioni dei consumatori che nell’insieme rappresentano nove Stati Membri.
I progressi della ricerca sono stati discussi durante il secondo meeting del progetto che si è tenuto a Londradal 3 al 4 marzo 2011.
Hylobates ha portato a termine 35 interviste con i consumatori, esperti e stakeholder che sono state condotte in Italia.  Altrettante interviste sono state condotte da altri cinque partner del progetto (Belgio,Irlanda, Lettonia, Spagna, Paesi Bassi).

I risultati delle interviste di tutti i paesi coinvolti contribuiranno alla valutazione della comunicazione dei rischi e benefici degli alimenti tra i consumatori, esperti estakeholder che rappresentano diversi passaggi della filiera alimentare. In particolare, le interviste sarannoanalizzate per identificare le questioni che sono di maggiore interesse per i consumatori in relazione allacomunicazione dei rischi e benefici degli alimenti.
Più in generale, le aree di ricerca del progetto includono:

  • La caratterizzazione delle questioni relative al rischio e beneficio degli alimenti e le implicazioni perla comunicazione ad esse correlate
  • Il potenziale ruolo dei nuovi social medi nella comunicazione dei rischi e benefici degli alimenti
  • Il modo in cui i consumatori rispondono all’informazione che percepiscono come incerta,contraddittoria e che disorienta e sviluppare dei criteri rilevanti di segmentazione
  • L’applicabilità del concetto di ricerca dell’informazione nell’ideazione della comunicazione dei rischi e benefici degli alimenti
  • Mettere a punto delle modalità pratiche con cui tener conto di come i consumatori formano le loro opinioni e deliberano con l’obiettivo di fornire benefici sostanziali agli stakeholders nello sviluppo della comunicazione

I risultati della ricerca saranno utilizzati per fornire ai decisori politici, alle autorità nel campo alimentare e ad altri stakeholders degli strumenti di lavoro con lo scopo di facilitare la comunicazione efficace e coerentenel campo alimentare e quindi favorire la comprensione dei consumatori attraverso messaggi chiari.

35 in-depth interviews conducted in Italy for the FoodRisC EC project

 

Photo of Patrick Wall, coordinator of FoodRisC

Patrick Wall, coordinator of FoodRisC

Hylobates Consulting is one of  fourteen partners of the EU 7th Framework project FoodRisC (Food Risk Communication – perceptions and communication of food risk/benefits across Europe), a three years project aimed at mapping out the  networks and information sources contributing to food risk and benefit communication across Europe. The project consortium is made up by research institutes, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), consumers organisations which altogether represent nine EU Member States.

Progress of work has been discussed during the 2nd meeting of the project which took place in London on March 3rd-4th 2011.

Hylobates has completed 35 interviews with consumers, experts and stakeholders  conducted in Italy. Similar interviews were carried out by other five partners of the project (Belgium, Ireland,  Latvia, Spain, The Netherlands). The results of the interviews from all countries involved will contribute to the assessment of food risk and benefit communication among consumers, experts and stakeholders representing different step of the food chain. In particular, the interviews will be analysed to identify the issues which are of most interest for consumers in relation to communication of food risk and benefit.

More generally the fields of investigation of the project include:

  • the characterization of food risk and benefit issues and the related communication implications
  • the potential role of new social media in communicating food risk/benefit
  • the way in which consumers respond to information they perceive as uncertain, contested or confusing and to develop relevant segmentation criteria
  • the applicability of the concept of information seeking to the design of food risk/benefit communications
  • developing practical ways in which consumer sense-making and deliberation can be taken into account in order to provide substantive benefits to stakeholders in developing communications.

The results of the research will be used to provide policy makers, food authorities and other stakeholders with a toolkit aimed at facilitating the effective and coherent communication on food and thus promoting consumer understanding through clear messages.

Hylobates Science

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