The Allergen Lab Revolution

Now, more than ever, food manufacturers are looking to lab science for safe and speedy answers, especially when it comes to allergens. Food allergies are a public health liability that affects both business and the consumer. More than 12 million Americans have food allergies, and many more are underdiagnosed or ignored.

In fact, eight major allergens—fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, egg, and dairy—designated by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) are responsible for more than 90% of all allergic reactions in the world.

Cross-contamination incidents, such as the Salmonella scare that caused the egg recall of 2010, are on the rise as well, and have renewed consumers’ unease with—and often distrust of—labels. As a result of this spike, manufacturers are feeling greater pressure to provide safe products, resulting in demands for more expedient testing results from quality assurance labs.

Although food lab scientists have myriad processes and technologies for food safety and quality assurance at their fingertips, the greatest improvements are being made to the systems already leading the industry: ELISA and PCR. When it comes to determining which of the two is better, or ideal, for integration, consider it on a case-by-case basis. Integrate one of these microtechnologies into your hazard analysis and critical control points program to increase testing turnaround and meet manufacturers’ deadlines, whether you are faced with allergens or bacteria.

ELISA Evolves

The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay ELISA kit is a molecular biology industry standard—a rapid immunochemical test that uses components of the immune system and chemicals to detect potential allergic reactions in the body. Traditional food allergen detection uses ELISA to find protein. This common practice, which uses antibodies to detect antigens, is applied through the preparation of monoclonal antibodies, which detects their presence through the confirmation of an allergen. Every allergen has a specific protein that makes it unique, one that can cause a negative physical reaction when the body doesn’t recognize it.

Very often, ELISA can detect food allergens, although cross reactivity may occur and diminish the certainty of results. These kits are easy to operate and are generally low cost: between $2 to $11 per test. Because the ELISA is protein-based, it is proficient at determining the exact source of an allergen, such as dairy or wheat. Before the ELISA, the only option for conducting similar testing was with radioimmunoassay—a technique that uses radioactively labeled antibodies and requires expensive radioisotopes or counters. ELISA’s biggest benefit is the elimination of radioactive substances; the method is leading the way in lab innovation technology.

The ABCs of PCR

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR), another lab science favorite, analyzes even the smallest components of DNA through a screening process that takes mere days and provides nearly guaranteed accuracy.

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