FDA researchers tested 100 dark chocolate products and found 59% of the 93 products that did not indicate the presence of milk on labels contained the allergen.
In addition, two of the 17 products that claimed to be “dairy free or allergen-free” contained milk, which can cause a dangerous reaction in some individuals, according to one of the researchers, Binaifer Bedford, an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education fellow at FDA.
Even some of the products labeled as “containing traces of milk” could mislead consumers, according to FDA. It noted that six out of the 11 chocolate products with this warning contained milk at levels high enough to potentially cause reactions in some individuals.
As one of the eight major food allergens, U.S. law requires foods to label clearly in commonly understood language if milk is present. The other allergens are wheat, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shell fish and soy beans. There also are efforts underway to add sesame to this list as it can cause anaphylactic shock. (Read more HERE.)
“The confectionery industry makes every effort to protect consumers with food allergies through labeling as well as comprehensive food safety systems,” said Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Confectioners Association.
“The safety of our products and our consumers is the number one priority for the chocolate industry. The findings from the FDA study that found evidence of milk in dark chocolate are very concerning. We are in communication with the FDA about the specific results to better understand how certain labeling statements were evaluated,” the association added in a statement.
Smith added in an email that “chocolate is a delicious tradition in the celebration of Valentine’s Day and this Valentine’s Day will be no different!”
Indeed, Valentine’s Day is one of the largest seasonal selling events for the chocolate industry, according to Packaged Facts, which estimates seasonal chocolate Valentine candy sales reached $557 million in 2014, up 9.6% from the prior year.
Causes of undeclared allergens
FDA did not name which of the products that it collected from across the country tested positive for milk, nor did it say the adulteration was intentional.
Rather, Bedford said the undeclared presence of milk likely was accidental and due to unintentional cross-contamination from milk chocolate products made on the same equipment as dark chocolate.
NCA acknowledged this risk and said that “while chocolate manufacturers clean the equipment between making dark and milk chocolate, it is often not possible to completely rid the equipment of allergenic proteins.”
It added: “In these cases, the industry typically uses advisory statements such as a ‘may contain milk’ to communicate about the potential presence of milk allergens in dark chocolate. Allergenic consumers should not consumer products that carry advisory statements.”
Other common causes of undeclared allergens in foods include mixing-up labels and packaging during production, failing to transfer allergen warnings from ingredients to the finished food product and failing to accurately describe the allergen, according to food recall and safety experts.
The agency’s discovery about the undeclared milk came months after FDA warned the public that about one-third of foods reported to the agency as serious health risks include undeclared allergens. (Read more about the finding and how to avoid the presence of undeclared allergens HERE.)
The agency looked at the safety of chocolate after hearing from consumers who experienced harmful reactions, FDA said.