Strategies are being developed to change the current agricultural practices by creating more sustainable and new climate-resistant crops, and to ensure an adequate, safe, sustainable and nutritious food supply (e.g. alternative novel protein sources).
The general food law requires that safety is assured for all food and food ingredients placed on the market, this is a responsibility of the producer. Furthermore, for foods that were not commonly consumed in the EU before 1997, a comprehensive food safety assessment (addressing nutritional, microbial, toxicological, and allergenic risks) has to be performed before the new product can be launched onto the food market (EC regulation No 258/97 and EU recommendation 97/618 EC; http://eur-lex.europa.eu/). However, the assessment of safety is often a bottleneck due to the absence of good predictive, validated and accepted methods for hazard and risk assessment. This is certainly true for allergenicity assessment of new and modified proteins (e.g. insects, algae, alternatively processed milk) and peptides containing products.
Food allergy has a prevalence of 2 to 4 % and is among the most prevalent disorders in the western world. It impacts not only the allergic individuals but also people surrounding the allergic individual (e.g. family, friends, colleagues). The economic impact of food allergy for the food sector and society is substantial, involving both direct (medical care, diet etc.) and indirect (illness, time spent for shopping etc.) costs. Moreover, the food industry regularly faces the financial consequences of food incidents and recalls for instance due to unintentional contamination of their products with food allergens. Costs savings can be achieved when allergenicity is predicted early in the process of development of (novel) proteins or protein containing products. It is thus imperative that any new food or food ingredient should not add the burden of allergy.
Currently there is no generally accepted strategy to assess the allergenicity of new proteins in food, except the one that is designed for GMO (genetically modified organism) as described by the joint Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Health Organisation (FAO/WHO) Expert Consultation, which was later updated by EFSA’s Genetically Modified Organisms Panel and was incorporated into the Codex Alimentaris (2003). However, the outcome of this strategy relies to a considerable degree on expert judgement and there is no generally accepted guidance on procedures and interpretation of the outcome yet. Moreover, the approach may not always be applicable for non-GM foods that are newly introduced in the diet, such as alternatively processed proteins and alternative food sources. So clearly there is a need for defragmentation of research methods and interpretation of current risk assessment procedures, which will be addressed in this COST Action.
To date, most European food allergy initiatives have focussed on managing the risks from existing common allergens, whereas the question ‘what makes a food protein an allergen?’ has received much less attention. An underlying hypothesis of this Action is that allergenicity prediction should not be restricted to analyses of IgE-binding properties and clinical phenomena, as these are ‘end-ofpipe’ events, but should also encompass aspects to (intestinal) allergen/protein absorption and initial events related to innate immune functioning that initiate ‘allergic inflammation’. The basic question: ‘what makes a food protein an allergen?” sums up the purpose of this COST Action: defining both the intrinsic difference between an innocuous food protein and a potential food allergen and any factors which may modulate this difference in order better to be able to predict the allergenic risk from new or modified food proteins. Therefore, an interdisciplinary network is needed to focus on the role and intrinsic properties of the (modified/new) food and food components on the development / maintenance of food allergy. The Action will integrate multi-COST disciplinary knowledge on food (components) from different research institutes and countries by bringing together scientists with a broad range of expertise (protein technology, gastro-intestinal physiology, biochemistry, toxicology, immunology, food processing, allergy, risk assessment, etc.) to discuss, fostering novel thinking, new ideas and models to improve the current risk assessment strategy and its components. Furthermore, the Action will provide an opportunity to have a broader scope on food allergy, by sharing our knowledge and combining research focus between different research institutes and countries. The developed knowledge will be applicable to multiple EU and otherwise funded projects.
This Action will help to develop an improved allergy risk assessment strategy for novel proteins by adding more predictive tools to the current risk assessment strategy, and accelerate the introduction of novel protein (sources) onto the market, to mitigate the concern of consumers around novel or genetically modified protein (products) and to advice policy makers on the safety of novel protein (products).