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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03. The VITAL solution

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If many foods with warnings don't actually have allergen contamination, then why are manufacturers using unnecessary warnings?

“Allergens were not on the radar of manufacturers last century, but after mandatory allergen labelling began in 2002, most big manufacturers cleaned up their act,” says Dr Rob Loblay. “However, avoiding all cross-contamination in a factory that makes different products requires a lot of time and investment - and in some cases, building separate facilities. In the small Australian market, this may not be cost-effective.”

The good news is that there is a solution to this label confusion. The bad news is that it's not being widely used.

VITAL (Voluntary Incidental Trace Allergen Labelling), is a process to assess cross-contamination risk. Developed by food manufacturers, the industry group Allergen Bureau, NSW Food Authority and allergy support groups, it estimates the risk of cross-contamination in a factory and can tell if a product will be safe for 90% of people.

Under VITAL, a “may be present” warning should only be placed on packaging by a manufacturer if the risk of contamination is assessed to be above a certain level.

It's a great idea but...

While VITAL can provide consumers with clarity around risk levels, there is currently there’s no way for people to know whether a product has been through the VITAL risk assessment or whether the manufacturer is adding the warning just in case. 

“VITAL has been useful for raising awareness of cross-contamination among manufacturers,” says professor Katie Allen. “Food makers can tell via VITAL that the food would be safe to eat for about 90% of people with allergies, but because they can’t be 100% sure it’s safe for everyone, they’re too scared to label it as safe.

“If they said something like ‘highly unlikely to contain nuts’, it would be much more useful.”

Research from MCRI in 2012 also found that only 12.7% of foods with precautionary labels surveyed had been through the VITAL process, which means the other 87.3% of warnings are likely to be placed on products as an insurance policy for the manufacturer. 

Would a VITAL logo work?

One option could be that manufacturers whose products have been put through the VITAL would carry a VITAL logo so consumers could be confident that the risk had been assessed.

Some allergen labelling advocacy groups would also like the VITAL process to be made mandatory for all food manufacturers in order to reduce the number of unnecessary precautionary warnings.

“The idea is that VITAL can define the level below which 90% of people will not have an allergic reaction,“ says Dr Loblay. “VITAL may be useful to prevent acute anaphylaxis, but traces can still be a problem for the most sensitive people who must avoid all contact.”

He prefers a harder line: “Food companies should be forced to use ‘May be contaminated’ with rather than the less confronting ‘May contain’. This would spur the food industry to put more effort into developing allergen-free foods, which would make it easier for consumers to trust the labels.”

Better food industry education

Maria Said from Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia applauds the efforts of the Allergen Bureau and the food industry to improve labelling, but explains VITAL is still a work in progress to make warnings more believable for consumers.

The big players in the food industry are making an effort, Said says, but it’s the resource-poor smaller businesses that need more information and support from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand about how to label their products correctly.

“While a ‘May contain’ label may be less than perfect, a product with no precautionary label can be more dangerous if the manufacturer isn’t educated about the risks of cross-contamination.”

*Source: Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy

 

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