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Allergens top cause of food recalls in the UK

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

Milk was the number one undecalred allergen causing recalls in the UK between 2016 and 2021
Milk was the number one undecalred allergen causing recalls in the UK between 2016 and 2021

Related tags recall Food safety

Allergens continue to be the main cause of food and drink recalls in the UK, with products containing milk the most frequent pulled from store shelves, according to a new report published in the scientific journal Food Control.

Researchers from The Institute of Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast and Edge Hill University found that recalls due to allergens were the main reason for food recalls (57.6%) between 2016 and 2021.

Food allergen-related recalls in the UK saw gradual increase between 2016 until 2019, where they peaked at 118 recalls, before decreasing to 82 and 84 in 2020 and 2021 respectively.

Of the products recalled for allergen reasons, those containing milk were the allergenic food group most frequently recalled within the UK from 2016 to 2021 – 25.2% of the 14 key allergenic food groups reported. This was significantly more than products containing gluten (16.9%), nuts (10.6%), soya (10.3%), eggs (8.5%) and mustard (7.1%).

The most common cause for recalls was the omission of priority allergens from the list of ingredients (40%).

Expiry dates

Discount supermarket Lidl issued the most recalls, with 37 recalls involving 62 products. Of the recalls observed by the report, 6% with expiry dates (480) passed their best-before or use-by dates, of which 14 products (48.3%) had use-by dates which were microbiologically unsafe to be consumed once past the relevant dates. Cereal and bakery products accounted for 30.4% of all recalls with expiry dates.

In light of the findings, the report put forward several recommendations for food and drink business operators to help improve the handling and reporting of allergen related product recalls.

“Manufacturers and retailers need to focus on managing allergen labelling at all stages of the supply chain to drive down recalls by recognising the errors prior to distribution to retailers, particularly recalls of omitted priority allergens in the list of ingredients (LI), packaged incorrectly, unemphasised priority allergens in LI and not labelled in English,”​ read the report.

“These are categories which should not slip past the manufacturers’ own risk management systems to consumers in the first place and strengthening their in-house checks would make food safer for consumers susceptible to food allergic reactions.”

On-site solutions

The report suggested enhanced lateral flow devices with optical readers on smartphones as a faster and more straightforward solution compared to conventional bioanalytical methods for on-site analysis.

“In addition, the implementation of standardised reporting procedures and incentive-based improvements in checking appropriate allergen labelling in the UK with a strict and systematic checklist before distribution to retailers will be beneficial towards FBOs, food regulatory bodies, and consumers,”​ the report continued.

“This can also be complemented with the usage of quality assurance systems with interactive or text-based artificial intelligence capabilities to scan the packaging and detect food products which do not conform to labelling guidelines before they are released to the market, preventing recalls from occurring in the first place. By addressing these labelling issues early, it would undoubtedly reduce economical and reputational damage caused by recalls.”

Related topics Food Safety

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