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Food safety chiefs have overturned the recall of a batch of Bart Ingredients cumin at the centre of a nut allergy health scare earlier this year.

The Food Standards Agency today (29 June) announced The Barts Ingredients Company cumin recalled in January after testing positive for undeclared almond protein did not, infact, contain any. Insisting it had acted correctly in recalling the cumin, the FSA revealed a false result had been caused by a spice called mahaleb, which is from the same ‘Prunus’ family of trees and shrubs as almond.

Bart Ingredients has questioned the veracity of the FSA results since the announcement of the original recall, at the time issuing a statement describing it as a ‘precautionary measure until the conclusion of investigations into detection methods’.

The presence of mahaleb was uncovered through additional testing by the Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC) using a process called liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. In combination with DNA testing, this found mahaleb could produce a false positive result for almond protein in cumin. The FSA said this was the first time researchers had identified this type of reaction.

“Throughout this incident we have carried out protein and DNA testing, using accredited laboratories and validated methods, and both indicated the presence of almond protein in this product,” said FSA consumer protection head Will Creswell. “Consumer safety is the FSA’s highest priority and our risk assessment at the time was that this product could potentially harm people with an allergy to almond. We were correct to ask Bart Ingredients to take precautionary action. Now that new evidence has come to light we are able to rescind this particular recall.”

Creswell added the FSA would now work with public analysts, analytical scientists, the industry and local authorities to review testing methodologies. “As with all significant incidents, we will also work together to review our actions and identify what lessons can be learned,” he said.

The Barts recall had been prompted by the detection of almond protein using ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), which detects proteins.

Michael Walker, consultant referee analyst in the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, said its research following the recall had shown ELISA was useful, but only as a screening test.

“Almond and other prunus species in spices had received little attention,” he added. “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. 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.”

A raft of other products – primarily Mexican food kits and seasonings – were recalled at around the time of the Barts incident as a result of undeclared almond in paprika. The FSA said there was currently no evidence of cross-reactivity due to mahaleb in paprika, although it was conducting further research to clarify this. These recalls are still stand.

Timeline: Nut contamination

26 Dec 2014: Texas-based Adams Flavors, Foods & Ingredients recalls 26 products after being notified by a supplier that cumin may contain peanut proteins

Jan-Feb 2015: Further US and Canadian recalls over concerns cumin ingredients may contain peanut

18 Jan: UK’s FSA begins programme of testing ground cumin and cumin seeds at ports.

23 Jan: FSA testing extends to retailers and wholesalers.

31 Jan: Bart Ingredients recalls batch of ground cumin after FSA detects ‘potential’ presence of almond.

12-14 Feb: Morrisons and Aldi Fajita Meal Kits recalled due to undeclared almond

16 Feb: Santa Maria recalls Disco­very Taco Seasoning in UK, and products in other countries, due to undeclared almond. FSA confirms paprika is likely source of almond in Santa Maria product.

18 & 19 Feb: Santa Maria recalls more lines, including Tesco and Sainsbury’s Mexican meal kits

29 June: FSA rescinds The Barts Ingredients Company recall announced on 31 January