Review reveals ambiguous food allergen labeling

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Allergy, Food allergy

Researchers behind a major review of voluntary allergen advisory labels are urging more regulation for allergen labeling to remove ambiguities and make life easier for allergy sufferers.

More than 12m Americans suffer from a food allergy, or about four percent of the population, and the incidence of food allergies in the US has doubled over the past decade, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. The reasons for this increase are still unclear, but the prevalence of allergy and difficulties for allergy sufferers in choosing appropriate products led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to introduce the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) in 2006.

The Act mandates the disclosure of eight food allergens in the ingredient statement: Milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nuts, fish, and crustacean shellfish – but it does not regulate advisory labels.

The study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology​, surveyed 20,241 manufactured food products and found that 17 percent included advisory labels, with chocolate confectionery, cookies, and baking mixes accounting for more than 40 percent or the warnings.

Advisory variety

Across food categories, researchers found 25 different types of advisory term including ‘may contain’, ‘shared equipment’ and ‘within plant’. Additionally, they found that 65 percent of products listed non-specific terms, such as ‘natural flavors’ and spices’, and that 83 percent of those were not linked to any specific ingredients.

“Supermarket product labeling deficiencies and ambiguities are prevalent,” ​the researchers wrote. “Allergists must continue to educate their patients about these problems, which could be addressed by strict enforcement of labeling laws as well as additional regulation.”

They added that an earlier study had shown that consumers erroneously perceive different terms to indicate different levels of risk – for example, that ‘may contain’ indicates a higher risk than ‘shared facility’, although there is no such risk differentiation.

Soy’s source

One specific issue outlined by the review was the labeling of soy products. Lecithin derived from soy must disclose soy on the ingredient label under the FALCPA legislation. More than half of the products labeled as containing soy only contained soy as soy lecithin which, the researchers argued, could be tolerated by some soy allergy sufferers since it contains only trace amounts of soy protein.

Refined oils that contain soy, on the other hand, are not required to list soy on the label because they tend to have very extremely low levels of soy protein – not enough to provoke an allergic reaction. The researchers found that the products they reviewed containing soy oil all listed a separate warning, even though soy protein was unlikely to have been an ingredient.

“Further regulations regarding soy, such as specifying ‘this product contains soy as lecithin only’ or not including ‘contains soy’ if soy oil is the only soy ingredient, could expand the products available to the individual with a soy allergy,” ​they wrote.

Similar problems were found with the listing of tree nuts, with the majority (77 percent) not disclosing the type of nut on the advisory label; and with gelatin, which can be derived from fish, pork or beef. Ninety-six percent of gelatin-containing products did not disclose its source.

“Additional allergen labeling regulation could improve safety and quality of life for individuals with food allergy,”​ the researchers concluded.

Source: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology

2009, Vol. 124, No. 2, pp. 337-341

“Audit of manufactured products: Use of allergen advisory labels and identification of labeling ambiguities”

Authors: M.M. Pieretti, D. Chung, R. Pacenza, T. Slotkin, and S.H. Sicherer.

Related topics: R&D, Food safety and labeling

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