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Peanuts as allergens in food: usually labelled

35/2015, 19.11.2015

In the largest study to date based on commercially available products, the BfR has tested food samples for traces of peanuts

Peanuts can cause allergic reactions and must therefore be labelled as an ingredient on food packaging. In a research project executed jointly with the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES), the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has investigated whether the labels accord with the contents of selected food samples. The result: out of a total of 633 products which did not contain a peanut warning on their label, only two samples contained peanuts nevertheless. This means that the rate of positive samples only amounted to 0.3%. Conversely, only 2.6% of the 266 samples with a warning that the product may contain traces of peanuts actually contained measurable contamination above 1 mg/kg. "Those who carefully read the list of ingredients and warnings can almost certainly avoid inadvertent consumption", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "However, this does not mean that consumers are absolutely safe, since allergy reactions differ between individuals and depend on the dose consumed."

The results of the study were published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, Volume 44, December 2015.

Even where peanuts are not a regular ingredient of a recipe, many foods contain the non-compulsory warning “May contain (traces of) peanuts”. Especially companies that also process peanuts in parallel or at other times in other products use this labelling practice.

As part of the cooperation project with the French authority ANSES, 899 food samples were, in the facilities of the BfR, tested for traces of peanuts. This makes it the so far largest study on the subject based on commercially available products. To detect peanuts, antibody-based immunological as well as DNA tests were used. The tests used are among the most sensitive methods currently available for peanut allergen detection in food. The samples came directly from French retail and did not, according to the label, contain any peanut-based ingredients. The selection and number of samples drawn was based on statistical considerations, age-related consumption habits playing a major part. Among the tested foods were breakfast cereals, muesli bars, baked goods, snacks, pizzas, crème desserts, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, ice cream and sorbets. 266 samples, almost one third, contained a peanut warning on the packaging, whereas the remaining 633 did not contain any such warning.

Traces of peanut were detected in only nine of a total of 899 samples (~ 1 %) . The majority of these positive results were snack products: two products of roasted pistachios and cashew kernels respectively, two cheese cracker products as well as a nut mixture with dry fruit. Traces of peanut were also found in a chocolate bar with nuts and raisins and in an almond spread. Overall, six of the nine products with a positive result contained less than 5 mg / kg and two samples contained 8 to 10 mg of peanut per kg. The top value detected amounted to about 20 mg / kg. However, this sample (nut mixture with dry fruit) was, as seven additional positive products, clearly labelled as possibly containing peanuts. The two positive products without any warning of possible peanut contamination (almond spread and roasted cashew kernels) contained very low traces of peanut. At about 1 mg / kg, they were only just detectable. Of a total of 633 products which did not carry any peanut warning, the proportion of positive samples was thus about 0.3 %. Conversely, only 2.6 % of the 266 samples with a peanut warning contained actually measurable contamination above 1 to 2 mg / kg.

The German BfR and the French ANSES entered into a cooperation agreement as early as 2010, since both institutions have similar tasks and comparable concepts of scientific risk assessment based on active research. The cooperation agreement allows the two institutions to work together both in the area of scientific risk assessment and research and also technical and administrative cooperation in these fields.


Peanut traces in packaged food products consumed by allergic individuals: Results of the MIRABEL project

BfR Information about Allergies

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.