UNL Food Allergy Group Makes Eating Safer for Allergic Consumers

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UNL Food Allergy Group

Eight major allergenic foods are often referred to as the Big 8: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean. These foods account for about 90 percent of all food allergies and must be declared on the label of any processed food, according to the food allergen-labeling act enforced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Stephen Taylor founded the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) in 1995 in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology, now located in the Food Innovation Center on Nebraska Innovation Campus. Taylor, a professor in the department, has a background in food science, biochemistry and toxicology. Taylor conducted research into food allergens for many years prior to founding FARRP and said the industry had a lot of common questions and didn’t have very many of the answers. “Clearly, there was an opportunity to build a program that would help get those answers,” Taylor said.

Taylor founded FARRP in a public-private consortium model, in which companies pay a fee to become a member. Membership means a company will benefit from the scientific research and testing that is conducted. “I knew no one company was going to fund all the research needed to answer all of those questions,” Taylor said. Seven companies signed on in 1995; currently 88 companies are in the consortium. By pooling their resources, all member companies can benefit from research results. Any company can submit samples for testing, but FARRP members pay less, Taylor said.

The core mission of FARRP is to take basic science about food allergies and translate it for the food industry directly, according to Joe Baumert, associate professor in the department. Baumert, with Taylor, now co-directs FARRP. “We look primarily at how we can help the food industry to make products for food-allergic individuals,” Baumert added. Food processors often manufacture many products in the same facility, and it is important that a product that contains peanut, for example, not cross-contaminate with another product that does not contain peanut.

FARRP scientists also serve the public and the research community by maintaining a database, www.allergenonline.org, that provides access to a peer-reviewed allergen list, intended to identify proteins that may present an allergy risk. The website was designed to help assess the safety of proteins that may be introduced into foods through processing methods or through genetics.

FARRP meets with its board of directors twice a year to establish the research priorities that have a common benefit. Most processing facilities have multiple products made in the same facility, so keeping allergens out of the products is important to FARRP, the member companies and more importantly, to consumers. Since its founding, FARRP scientists have developed analytical methods to detect residues of allergens in food. In 1997, FARRP scientists developed the first assay for peanut residues, which was licensed to Neogen Corporation; Neogen then released the first commercial peanut kit in 1999. “I can kind of say that led to the creation of the whole allergen detection industry,” Taylor said.

Outreach and research

The outreach component for FARRP is just as important as the research component. “We provide training opportunities and really empower the food industry with knowledge it can use,” Baumert said.

The move to the Food Innovation Center on Nebraska Innovation Campus in the summer of 2015 enlarged the laboratory space for the 25 staff members.

“It’s a large and unique lab that provides a food safety service for the industry,” Baumert said. Food companies may contact FARRP for analytical testing of processing facility samples, which FARRP scientists analyze. In 2015, for example, FARRP scientists tested 51,000 samples. Scientists not only conduct the testing but also provide the interpretation of the results. “If you don’t find any residues, anybody can interpret that. If you find a whole lot of allergens, you know you’ve made a big mistake and that’s easy to interpret. But if you find just a little bit, what does that mean, and is it hazardous? How can we fix it? All of those things are what we help our member companies with,” Taylor said.

FARRP scientists have partnered with clinicians in Canada, the European Union and Australia. They also work with risk assessors, regulatory agencies and other academic units around the world to gain a broad insight into food allergy for the food industry.

According to Baumert, having direct interaction with the food industry is the biggest benefit for FARRP.

“This collaboration allows us to approach an area that may not have as much federal funding for the applied type of research that the food industry may need,” Baumert said.

With the addition of two new faculty members who have diverse scientific backgrounds, Taylor and Baumert hope to drive the program’s research even further when it comes to better identifying allergens, characterizing allergens and detecting allergens. “I think we have a very dynamic group and we are building upon that. So the future definitely looks bright for us,” Baumert said.

For more information about the UNL Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, go to [ farrp.unl.edu ].