The seeds are high in protein and fibre, but also contain alkaloids which are toxic. The request concerns the narrow-leaved lupin, Lupinus angustifolius, which contains lower than average levels of toxin.
In its annual report, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP), said it must be satisfied that the toxin levels would remain acceptably low in plants grown in Britain. To date, lupins have been grown as crops only in small quantities in European countries, including Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Before reaching a decision, the advisers will also be examining fungi which grow on the lupin crop plant. Fungal infections can produce toxins, so are routinely checked in all cereal crops.
The committee's chairman, Derek Burke, who is also vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, said the past year's activities included examination of other exotic crops such as oils from cherry and apricot kernels. Manufacturers wanted to use these in speciality foods such as salad dressings and for shallow frying. Cooks in other countries are already free to use the oils, which contain traces of cyanide.
The advisers questioned whether these trace levels were safe, and were convinced that the extraction process cut out most of the cyanide. As an extra precaution, oils sold in Britain must contain no more than 15 milligrams of cyanide in every kilogram of oil.
The committee also examines existing food products which are not usually consumed in the UK. One example is a herbal tea made from the leaves of the chapparal plant, a relative of the creosote bush. The infusion is said to help strengthen the immune system and has been promoted in the fight against Aids. It is known to be toxic to the kidneys and possibly the liver and has already been banned in the United States.
The advisers said yesterday that they did not believe chapparal tea was sold in the UK. They have no powers to ban it but can recommend that ministers do so.