In conjunction with colleagues in the Food Standards Agency (FSA), Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has rescinded a UK-wide recall of a batch of ground cumin sold by the Bart Ingredients Company.
Additional testing by the Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC) has shown a spice called mahaleb was present and not almond protein. Mahaleb and almond are from the same ‘Prunus’ family of trees and shrubs. However, mahaleb is not one of the 14 allergens identified in food allergen legislation. There is no evidence that the contamination was a result of fraudulent activity.
The level of almond protein detected was considered to be a risk to people with an allergy to almond. The company subsequently produced test results from samples of the same material that contradicted the positive result.
Ian McWatt, Director of Operations at FSS, said:
“Since taking over the responsibilities of the Food Standards Agency in Scotland in April this year, Food Standards Scotland has worked closely alongside the FSA to put the safety of consumers first, including in the handling of food incidents.
“The decision made by FSA to ask Bart Ingredients to take precautionary action was correct, based on the information that was available at that time, to minimise the potential risk to people with an almond allergy. New evidence now allows that recall to be rescinded, following a full programme of protein and DNA testing, using accredited laboratories and validated methods.
FSS will work with FSA going forward to review our actions and identify what lessons can be learned.”
LGC used a type of analysis called “liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry” which, in combination with DNA testing, found that mahaleb could produce a false positive result for almond protein in cumin. This is the first time researchers have identified this type of reaction.
Michael Walker, Consultant Referee Analyst in the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, said:
“This has been a pioneering and resource intensive scientific investigation involving a large multidisciplinary team of scientists. Almond and other Prunus species in spices had received little attention. We now know that ELISA detection is useful but only as a screening test. There are unusually high similarities in the DNA and protein of these related species that make it very difficult to tell them apart in spices. But thanks to the expertise of the molecular biologists and protein chemists in LGC we have developed what is, to the best of our knowledge, the world’s first DNA test for mahaleb and discovered subtle mass spectrometry differences to distinguish almond and mahaleb proteins.”
There have been several other recalls in the UK during this incident, the majority of which have been for undeclared almond in paprika products. There is currently no evidence of cross-reactivity due to mahaleb in paprika. However, the FSA is doing further research to clarify this.
All other recalls in the UK associated with almond contamination of paprika still stand, as the evidence presently available to the FSA suggests the affected products remain a potential health risk to people with an allergy to almond.
NOTE TO EDITORS
ELISA stands for ‘enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay’ - a laboratory technique which can be used to determine if a particular protein is present in a sample and in what quantity.