Consumer confusion about precautionary allergen labeling underscores need for governmental guidance

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Akchamczuk
Source: Getty/Akchamczuk

Related tags: Allergy, Allergen

New research revealing the depth of consumer confusion about allergen labeling underscores a need for clearer, more consistent labeling about the presence of allergens or the risk of cross-contamination in food and beverages, and bolsters support for stricter labeling regulations and legislation, according to the Food Allergy Research and Education NGO.

According to a new study ​published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice, less than a quarter of 3,008 participants could correctly answer four questions about precautionary allergen labeling (PAL), such as “may contain” or “manufactured on shared equipment.”

“These results suggest that [food allergy] consumers are not aware of PAL policies,”​ which are voluntary in the US, write researchers led by Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Currently, in the US, manufacturers only need to label when ingredients include “top allergens,” such as peanut, tree nuts, milk, egg, wheat, soy, fin fish, and crustacean shellfish. However, some voluntarily add PAL – although the wording and how it is displayed varies as it is not mandatory.

“The lack of specific governmental policy results in inconsistent labeling practices and confusion,”​ the study concludes.

While there is not currently a legislative push to mandate PAL or an industry movement to standardize it, the research suggests some wording may be more effective than others.

“When asked about their shopping habits, the majority of respondents never purchase products with a “May contain traces of allergen” label (85.5%) in comparison with never purchasing products with “Good manufacturing practices used to segregate ingredients in a facility that also processes allergen” label (35%),”​ the study reports.

It adds respondents’ top preferences for precautionary allergen labeling include “Not suitable for people with ‘blank’ allergy” (29.3%) and “May contain” X allergen or traces of X allergen (22.1%). More than a third of respondents also prefer for PAL to appear on the front of the package and below the ingredient list.

Based on these findings, the researchers note consumers “prefer having clearer, more specific and consistent labeling on products, indicating that explicit PAL policies are needed to allow customers to easily identify safe foods.”

The findings bolster the need for stricter legislative and regulatory requirements around allergen labeling, argues FARE.

“The issues is critical for those with food allergy. It needs to be an absolute top priority for policy discussions and is necessary to improve the safety of consumers with food allergy,”​ Anita Roach, VP of Health Innovation Strategies and Corporate Ventures at FARE, said in a statement.

Recent legislation designed to expand allergen labeling failed to be signed into law during the last legislative cycle, despite 11th​ hour unanimous approval by the US House of Representatives in November and the US Senate in December.

The Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research Act would have required that sesame be labeled on food products as a ninth top allergen.  FARE notes that it will pursue the reintroduction of the legislation in both chambers during the first 100 days of the legislative cycle.

The NGO also encourages stakeholders to voice their support for voluntary sesame labeling guidance published by FDA ​in November before the comment period expires Feb. 25.

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