VITAL Testing & Allergen Reference Doses


16 November 2023



Reference doses are key in enhancing allergen safety with VITAL testing and training support. Here Jess explains how they can be used to detect allergen protein, calculate reference doses, & ensure food quality. 


Food allergies affects a significant proportion of the population, with around 1-2% of adults in the UK suffering with the condition. Someone with a food allergy will experience an inappropriate immune response if they are exposed to the protein of the food that they are allergic to. In some cases, these reactions can be severe, and in the worst cases, fatal.  

What are reference doses?


Lots of research and VITAL testing continues to be conducted around the world, to help us understand why people develop allergies, and to measure the smallest amounts of protein that can trigger an allergic reaction in an individual. 


This global data is collated and used to help us understand the lowest levels of protein (for each allergen) that are likely to elicit an allergic reaction in some of the most sensitive people. These established protein levels are referred to as ‘reference doses’.


One key aim of all this work is to help the food industry to progress towards ‘action levels’.  The term refers to the level of allergen protein at which action should be taken in the form of applying a precautionary label. Understanding these levels should promote consistency in the approach to using Precautionary Allergen Labelling (PAL) across the industry.


The VITAL approach


The VITAL program was developed by the Allergen Bureau in Australia and New Zealand and was designed as a tool to help businesses to decide whether PAL was appropriate (VITAL stands for Voluntary Incidental Trace Allergen Labelling).  The tool uses VITAL test data relating to the user’s products and ingredients, and any levels of unintentional allergen protein they contain, to calculate whether these would equate to levels at or above the reference doses for those allergens. It is recommended that PAL is applied to the product if the recorded levels are at or above the VITAL test reference dose.


The reference doses used in the Allergen Bureau’s VITAL program are the doses of allergen at which 1% of the allergic population are likely to start to have a reaction and are reported as the ED01 levels (ED meaning Eliciting Dose and 01 meaning 1%). As these reference doses were published linked with the program, they became known as the VITAL reference doses.



VITAL testing


If a business is adopting the VITAL approach and is using these reference doses to make decisions about whether to apply precautionary labelling, it is critical that the right sampling and VITAL testing approach is adopted. Sampling needs to be based on risk, and represent the worst-case scenario in order to capture the highest levels of contamination. The VITAL testing undertaken needs to be based on the detection of protein, so typically ELISA is the method of choice. Working with a laboratory that understands how reference doses can be applied will also be beneficial when it comes to interpreting the VITAL test results.


Many businesses have attempted to adopt the VITAL approach and perform calculations intended to assess contamination levels, only to discover that it is not as simple as it first appears.  Many considerations are needed, including the source of the contamination, portion sizing, the proportion of contaminated ingredients, and the interpretation of analytical testing results.


How can RSSL help?


If you are looking for support in the use of reference doses, our experienced allergen experts have developed a half day course examining how reference doses can be used to improve your products safety. Find out more about this training here or contact us on the form below.

Contact us

Call us on either number below

Switchboard: +44 (0)118 918 4000

Customer Services: +44 (0)118 918 4076

We value your trust when sharing your personal data with us. We always treat your data in a fair and respectful manner limited to the purpose above mentioned. If you would like to know more about how we handle your data, please read our privacy notice.