Endangered consumers ignorant of allergy labelling, FSA study

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food allergy, Food standards agency

Endangered consumers ignorant of allergy labelling, FSA study
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published new research showing that most participants with 'life threatening' nut allergies believed that products without allergen advice boxes posed no danger.

The University of Surrey led study, from February 2009 to April 2010, looked into the mechanisms for consumer choice when avoiding ‘trigger foods’ such as peanuts and other nuts, and the FSA said little work had been done before along these lines.

The agency is using its results to inform dietary advice to consumers with nut allergies and to steer the development of food allergy labelling policy, where allergen-related issues account for approximately 60% of UK product recalls.

32 adult volunteers with a peanut or tree nut allergy undertook three tasks to determine their food choices and purchasing decisions: these included an accompanied shop where they ‘talked aloud’ about factors determining product choice and face-to-face interviews.

A third task involved a ‘product choice reasoning task’ (PCRT), with volunteers given 13 potentially problematic food products and asked to ‘think aloud’ if they would be happy to buy the product and explain how they reached their decision.

Daily dilemmas

However, the FSA said that most participants did not understand the voluntary (rather than statutory) status of allergen advice boxes, with some incorrectly assuming that products without an advice box indicated that products did not contain the main allergens and were therefore safe to eat.

The results are worrying, since although ingredients lists were used by most participants as a reliable source of information on allergen content, most said they relied more heavily on the allergy advice box.

Many participants also found precautionary ‘may contain’ nut warnings used by food manufacturers to indicate possible cross-contamination with a food allergen “not credible or desirable”​; some ignored it while several avoided eating these products altogether.

“However, the majority of participants felt that it was almost impossible to avoid eating all products with ‘may contain’ type labelling as doing so would result in a very limited diet,”​ said the FSA.

Anaphylaxis Campaign food advisor Hazel Gowland, a project adviser to the study, said: "The study encompasses the experiences of a wide range of nut allergic people, aged 16-70 and from a range of backgrounds.

"The daily dilemmas they face support the need for clear and legible labelling, transparency in the use of 'may contain' labelling and improved allergy information and food safety allergen controls in restaurants."

Acceptable limits?

In a recent paper for The Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST) Simon Flanagan, senior consultant, food safety at Reading Scientific Services (RSSL), said that 'may contains' labels were tricky for food firms to manage.

He added that in the absence of EU-wide 'acceptable limits' for food allergens, companies felt obliged to use such labels when there was the "slightest, negigible risk of contamination".

Another problem, Flanaghan said, was differing labelling regulations, which made it difficult for food manufacturers to decide upon a consistent approach to allergens.

For instance, Japan requires mandatory labelling of only five allergens compared to the EU's 14, while even within Europe retailers apply different standards that manufacturers must adhere to.

The Surrey researchers also found that food labels and previous experience of the product affected purchase strategies, with brand name and supermarket important ‘rules of thumb’ for participants considering whether to eat a product or not.

The study showed that consumers trusted labelling from certain food companies over that of others, because of assumptions about company policies and product quality.

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2 comments

Maybe maufactured can be a risk of exposure

Posted by Anna,

Eventhough a product may not contain peanuts, it may be ran on a line with another product that contains peanuts or peanut products. They are supposed to clean between products, but if they do not do a sufficient job then there is risk for exposure. For example, some ice cream companies run chocolate and vanilla on the same line. The chocolate does not contain peanuts, but components in the chocolate may have been exposed to peanuts. Some people are so allergic that they cannot go to a baseball game without fear of airborne exposure.

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Companies covering themselves make labeling useless

Posted by Momof3PAKids,

A large problem is that companies put "Maybe Manufactured" or "May contain", even when there is no TRUE risk of exposure. Our Allergist said the companies do this as just another way to protect themselves from being sued. This defeats the purpose of allergy labeling and has nothing to do with consumer ignorance!!!!! Either it contains peanuts or it doesn't. The regulations should change to make it very clear to consumers.

This is largest part of the problem.

Compare it to this. Aren't there a certain number of bug parts per million in table salt and pepper? There should be an amount regulated to be present before companies should be allowed to place the warning on the label when the product does not contain peanuts as an ingredient. Let's not single out these kids anymore than absolutely necessary. And that is what this labeling results in with day-to-day use.

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