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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02. To eat or not to eat?


It all comes down to a personal assessment of risk with the help of your doctor, says Dr Rob Loblay, allergy unit director at the Department of Clinical Immunology, RPA Hospital, Sydney. “Some people will find a food with a warning hasn’t affected them in the past and doesn’t affect them now and they continue to eat the food - others won’t feel confident to take the risk.

“Despite the concerns of many people with coeliac disease, most can tolerate 20 parts per million of gluten, so occasional trace amounts aren’t such a huge issue,” he says. “But for those allergic to nuts, a fragment - a quarter of a peanut - in a food can be life-threatening.”

Some brands of chocolate that don’t list nuts can have nut traces, so Loblay advises anyone with a nut allergy to be wary of eating chocolates labelled “may contain nuts” and only buy those labelled “nut free”.

He says stringent avoidance of nuts may give children the best chance of growing out of their allergy.

Severe allergies

People with certain severe allergies need to take “may contain” messages very seriously, and call the manufacturer for advice if unsure.

Checking the label every time in case the formulation changes is also essential, as this comment from website The Conversation shows:

“I recently had a nasty reaction to Cadbury chocolate biscuits. It was only after getting stabilised that I found a tiny circle on the front of the package saying ‘new allergen information’. The back of the package indicated that the biscuits, formerly labelled as ‘may contain traces of nuts’, were now made with hazelnut paste as a major component of the recipe.

I spoke with Cadbury, whose attitude appeared to suggest that because they’d previously mentioned ‘may contain’ etc., I shouldn’t have been surprised at the major change in recipe.”

Gluten dilemma


According to Annabel Mackenzie from Coeliac Australia, people with coeliac disease could rely on certain Cadbury products as being gluten-free up until the company changed hands and “may contain gluten” began appearing on products.

Cadbury didn’t return CHOICE's calls, but according to a consumer’s Facebook post, the company said they hadn’t changed the formulation or the production methods. However, they were unable to guarantee that products would be free of cross-contaminated gluten.

This raises the question: was there a risk of contamination previously, but no warning? Or is the risk still low and is the company simply putting out a standard statement to reduce potential lawsuits?

Experts call for clear labelling

“Labelling is also a big issue,” says Dr Loblay. “It’s easy for people to miss allergen information, and they often only find it after a reaction when they go back and look at the packet. The print is too small and hard for older people to read, and packaging can sometimes fold over, obscuring the warning.

“I’d like to see a recognisable standard health information panel on all packaging that is separate to the ingredients list and contains allergen warnings, additives and health claims. That way, everyone knows where to look.”

*Source: Australasian Society Of Clinical Immunology And Allergy


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