News story

Pioneering DNA allergen work highlighted by FSA Chief Scientist

Government chemist team is praised for pioneering DNA allergen work by Professor Guy Poppy, Chief Scientific Advisor at the Food Standards Agency

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Supporting the Food Standards Agency

The pioneering work carried out by molecular biologists Malcolm Burns and Gavin Nixon in the Government Chemist programme in LGC was highlighted in the fifth report by the Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Guy Poppy, on Food Allergy and Intolerance. The work involved the development of new DNA tests for mahaleb and the common members of the Prunus species to help resolve two high profile referee cases.

The problem

In January 2015, the FSA were made aware of an issue with the presence of undeclared nuts in cumin based products. Samples of ground cumin and cumin seed were collected from across the UK and market intelligence was used to focus on imports from particular countries and types of retailers. The main test used for allergens (ELISA) showed that proteins from almonds were present in samples. However, the manufacturer could not identify how almond could have contaminated the cumin and suspicion then fell on a spice called mahaleb, which was ground on the same equipment as the cumin. The mahaleb (Prunus mahaleb) is from a closely related species to almond (Prunus dulcis) and therefore has very similar proteins. ELISA tests were unable to distinguish between them.

The solution

The Government Chemist team developed pioneering new DNA tests for the cumin case and for a related paprika case. The cases were resolved using the new methods alongside protein mass spectrometry and reappraisal of the original ELISA tests that had been carried out by other laboratories.

Malcolm Burns, Principal Scientist for Food Authenticity testing, stated:

The inclusion of our work in the Food Allergy and Intolerance report demonstrates the significant role the Government Chemist programme plays in protecting the food chain on behalf of consumers. The report highlights the pivotal role that enhanced DNA approaches play in successful allergen identification and highlights the critical need for improved allergen detection methods to support monitoring, surveillance and enforcement.

The Chief Scientific Advisor’s report on Food Allergy and Intolerance is a highly informative overview of FSA’s work on these topics.

For further information on this work see our recent open access publications:

Contact us

Contact the Government Chemist for more information.

Published 9 November 2016