Survey shows food allergy labels cause consumer confusion

Allergenic food isolated on whiteDo you get confused trying to decipher the ingredients in a food item when reading the label on the packaging? Well, with labels that state “may contain” and “manufactured on shared equipment,” a lot can be left to the imagination. New research is showing this is particularly confusing for individuals with food allergies who are trying to avoid specific ingredients harmful to their health or that can be life-threatening.

Pediatrician Dr. Ruchi Gupta and her colleagues recently conducted an online survey of more than 6,600 respondents in the U.S. and Canada. Those answering the questions either had a food allergy, had someone in their family with a food allergy, or were a caregiver of someone with a food allergy and were responsible for buying their food.

In the survey, Gupta and her team found about half of the respondents thought precautionary labels such as “may contain” and “manufactured on shared equipment,” were required by law and therefore are on all products with allergenic ingredients. However, that is simply not the case, Gupta explained in the article. Instead, those precautionary labels are voluntary, meaning they are not required in the U.S. and Canada.

In addition, about one-third of the survey participants thought these types of labels were based on the amount of an allergen that might be present in a food product, which is also not true, Gupta said.

Based on the survey responses, researchers found that foods labeled with a “may contain” or “manufactured on shared equipment” label were thought to be less dangerous than other products that have a particular allergen labeled as being definitely part of the product.  However, according to Gupta that may not necessarily be the case either.

The two precautionary labels are equally dangerous, Gupta said in the article. The amount of allergen required to trigger a reaction varies from person to person, so it’s impossible to know if a product that says “may contain” a specific allergen will prove dangerous or not. Because of this, Gupta suggests food labels need an overhaul.

Under the U.S. Food Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, food companies must identify major allergens if that food is an intended ingredient. These foods include wheat, egg, milk, peanuts, fish, shellfish, soy and tree nuts.

However, if food is produced on shared equipment, there’s still a risk that some trace of an allergen may be in the product. As a result, food makers began adding what is known as precautionary allergen labels. They state that a product “may contain” a specific allergen or that a food is “manufactured in a facility” that has products containing a specific allergen.

Today, up to 40% of consumers who either themselves have a food allergy or a child with a food allergy are still purchasing products with precautionary allergen labels, Gupta said, questioning the usefulness of these labels.

Dr. Vivian Hernandez-Trujillo, chief of the section of pediatric allergy and immunology at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, agreed that labeling can be confusing.

The study not only points out “the reality that families with food allergies deal with on a day-to-day basis,” but “it also points out the need for improvement in the clarity of food labeling,” Hernandez-Trujillo said.

What to do until labels change? “I advise my patients to avoid foods with any label stating ‘may contain’ an allergen,” she said.

Gupta agreed. “What we encourage our parents to do is try to avoid any food with any precautionary labeling if it has the food their child is allergic to,” which can be difficult, she acknowledged.

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