Food allergen warnings

Label warnings that foods ‘may’ be contaminated with allergens are driving some consumers nuts – and putting them at risk of allergic reaction or anaphylactic shock.
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01.What are "may contain" warnings?

Detecting allergens in food

Voluntary advisory labels on packaged foods, such as “May contain traces of...” or “Manufactured in a facility which also processes nuts…” have increased recently, with one study finding these now appear on more than half of all packaged foods in Australian supermarkets. This is causing some confusion.   

When allergens - such as peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, sesame seeds, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat, and royal jelly, as well as more than 10mg/kg of sulphites - are used as an ingredient in a food, they must be listed as an allergen on packaging (mandatory allergen labels). 

However, “may contain” warnings are placed on packaging voluntarily by manufacturers to advise that there may be accidental cross-contamination of the food by allergens during processing of the food (voluntary advisory labels). For example, a chocolate bar may not contain nuts, but if made in a factory that makes other foods with nuts, there’s a risk that tiny traces or even a fragment of nut may contaminate the bar.

As there is no standard wording, font or style specified, manufacturers use whatever wording they like - making the huge variety of so-called precautionary warnings confusing for consumers. (For more information on food labelling, see our food and health section.)

How real is the risk of contamination?

It’s impossible to know, but Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne found 90% of the top five foods at risk of contamination – chocolates, breakfast cereals, muesli bars and savoury and sweet biscuits – now carry some form of precautionary statement.

However, when tested, only seven per cent of these high-risk products with warning statements about peanuts actually had detectable levels of the nut.

Other samples that had precautionary labelling for hazelnut, milk, egg, soy or lupin had no detectable level of those allergens present at all.

Confused consumers

More than 50% of packaged processed foods in Australian supermarkets now show these precautionary warnings - and a study by the MCRI found that people with allergies have little idea whether the food really might be contaminated, or whether the manufacturer has just put the warning on to cover against legal action if someone does get sick from cross-contamination.

The MCRI study, which included parents of children with a history of anaphylaxis, found that 80% of those parents did not know if a food with a precautionary warning is safe, irrespective of the wording.

Only five per cent felt they could “completely trust” food labels and tended to ignore warnings because they perceived them simply as a way for food manufacturers to cover themselves legally.

“We have no data on how many people who ignore labels suffer anaphylactic events, and we’re planning to do a national study,” says professor Katie Allen, lead researcher from MCRI in Melbourne. “At this stage we think it’s more likely that the increase in anaphylactic hospitalisations is due to the increase in allergies, but the problem with the current labelling system is that the 'may contain' statements transfer the assessment of risk of contamination from manufacturers to consumers.”

As result it’s up to the consumer to decide, with no real information, whether to take the risk of eating a food. People with serious allergies are left with a diminished choice of products they can consume with complete confidence.



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