Science - November 27, 2014

Warning: May contain traces of peanuts

Rob Ramaker

From mid-September restaurants in the Netherlands are obliged to state on their menus which allergens are present in their dishes. Restaurateurs are grumbling and Huub Savelkoul, professor of Cell Biology and Immunology, is critical too. ‘This is well-meant but very nanny- state-ish.’

What is the problem? There are lots of people with allergies who will be happy about this.

‘In fact only 1 to 2 percent of the Dutch have a food allergy, while as many as 17 percent think they have an allergy. At the moment there is a hypelike emphasis on allergies, especially focusing on gluten. That can cause a psychological reaction. And then some symptoms are caused by food intolerances, to lactose for instance. That is not caused by the immune system – as in the case of allergies – but by an enzyme defect.’

It's quite possible that the legislators will come back on this
Huub Savelkoul

This legislation revolves around allergies, though. Is this overestimation going to cause problems?

 ‘People with a real allergy have adjusted their lifestyle long ago. The legislation will have most effect on that vague middle group. The people who suspect they are allergic or who occasionally react to certain foods. It is  a good idea to protect seriously allergic people but you have to question whether it is realistic to aim for zero risk. This legislation is worrying people and imposing big costs on producers and restaurants. It is well-meant but it is very nanny-state-ish.’

 So will things work out alright with this legislation?

‘The lack of a uniform labeling system is the main problem, but our ignorance is another one. For exam- ple, we don’t know what the effect of heating is on a lot of allergenic foodstuffs. You would have to do a crazy amount of research to get a comprehensive system.

Meanwhile, cross-pollination, through which pollen could get into food, does not have to be mentioned. So it is quite possible that the legislators will come back on this or make some changes to it.’