Authorities in the United Kingdom have advised businesses to test soya lecithin from India because of potential peanut contamination.

The issue was raised by Germany via a Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) report in late April and affects about 60 countries including the United States. Another four alerts have been made since, with three by Spain and one from Italy.

Food Standards Scotland and the Food Standards Agency in the UK said firms buying such soybean lecithin should sample and test the product upon arrival in the UK before it is further processed or sold.

This is because there has been widespread contamination of the food additive with undeclared peanut protein at different levels over some time, posing a risk to people with peanut allergies. It is believed to have been caused by cross-contamination during processing.

Soybean lecithin is used in a range of foods, such as chocolate, cheese, margarine, and salad dressing, often as an emulsifier.

Risk of allergic reaction
Test results should be passed along the supply chain to enable companies to assess the risks to products they make with this ingredient.

In May, the FSA said there was no evidence of unsafe food having been placed on the market and it was reassured that evidence from industry suggested the incident had been controlled. 

Tina Potter, FSA head of incidents, said there had been no related reports of allergic reactions. 

“My advice to those with peanut allergy is to continue to closely follow precautionary allergen labeling on products as you normally would and sign up to our allergy alerts so you can be notified in the event that any product recalls are later undertaken,” she said at the time.

However, a root cause analysis and corrective action plan from the Lecithin Association of India does not indicate when the issue might be resolved or for how long risk management measures will need to continue.

The association is testing all incoming and outgoing materials to ensure there is no contamination of soya lecithin. It requested that UK businesses do similar tests when they receive products.

Advice to tackle the global problem
The European Lecithin Manufacturers Association (ELMA) said it was very concerned about the issue. Members of the trade group asked Indian suppliers to do pre-shipment tests. Members were carrying out their own analyses for peanut protein using validated methods on batches before sending them to market.

Updated guidance from Food Standards Scotland and the Food Standards Agency states that if food companies have been supplied with soya lecithin contaminated with peanut protein, product-specific risk assessments should be carried out to determine whether it is safe to be sold.

Businesses should consider whether existing labeling manages the risk to consumers from use of contaminated soya lecithin and some may add voluntary precautionary allergen labeling (PAL) statements to their products. If any product containing soybean lecithin has been contaminated with peanuts and the labeling does not manage the risk to consumers, it should be withdrawn or recalled.

While non-prepacked foods do not require labeling, allergen information should be provided to the consumer in writing or verbally.

Businesses should also ensure that any future supply of soybean lecithin does not contain undeclared peanut protein before further processing or production.

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