Australia has one of the highest rates of food allergies in the world. Hospital admissions for anaphylaxis (severe life-threatening allergic reaction) have increased four-fold in the past 20 years and the incidence of food-induced anaphylaxis has doubled in the past 10 years.
But the study, commissioned by Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia (A&AA) to coincide with Food Allergy Week, found that 56% of the more than 1050 Australians surveyed believe that people with food allergy are over-cautious. A resounding 98% don't know that a food allergy can be life threatening.
Maria Said, president of A&AA, advised that while food allergy is manageable, sufferers need to be cautious and always know what is in what they eat and drink – something that's not easy when allergen labelling on food packaging is so confusing.
"Even consuming the tiniest amount of a food that you are allergic to can result in a life-threatening reaction in some, so it is essential that the community understands the importance of taking food allergy seriously," she said.
Awareness is crucial
Anaphylaxis can result in respiratory or cardiac arrest within minutes of exposure to the trigger. But the study found that 86% of Australians can't identify the signs and symptoms of a severe allergic reaction, and 69% don't know what to do in an emergency.
"Currently, one in 10 babies born in Australia will develop a food allergy, which is approximately 30,000 per year. Understanding how a reaction can occur, the signs and symptoms of food allergy and what to do in an emergency is key," Said stressed.
The cost of allergies
Dr Raymond Mullins, Chair of the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) Anaphylaxis Committee said that food allergy and anaphylaxis have become an increasing burden to public and personal health in recent years.
"Food allergy and anaphylaxis contribute to increased demand for medical services, which is a significant economic cost and reduced quality of life for those who suffer a food allergy and their families," Mullins said.
Improving the status quo
To help address these concerns, A&AA and ASCIA are calling on government to recognise allergic disease, including but not limited to food allergy, as a significant chronic disease. They've developed Australia's first National Allergy Strategy in collaboration with more than 50 key stakeholder organisations.
"We want to educate the whole community. It is up to everyone to be allergy aware. The good news is that the research found that 60% of Australians want to have a better understanding of food allergy," advised Said.
If you'd like to improve your knowledge of allergies, check out the following resources:
- Food Allergy Aware (from A&AA) gives you the basics about food allergy and anaphylaxis, including how to recognise a reaction.
- The ASCIA website offers resources including action plans, details on allergy testing and a list of allergy specialists in your area.
It's mandatory for peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, sesame seeds, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat, royal jelly and sulphites (more than 10mg/kg) to be listed as allergens on food packaging if they're included as an ingredient – although occasionally manufacturers don't comply, which can result in a food recall if the error is identified.
Voluntary advisory labels – often referred to as precautionary labelling or statements – can also be placed on packaging by manufacturers to warn that there may be accidental cross-contamination of the food by allergens during processing of the food.
More than 50% of packaged processed foods in Australian supermarkets now show these precautionary statements, and a study by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute found that people with allergies have little idea if the food might actually 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.
Our food allergen warnings article discusses the options for clearer and more helpful labelling.
Food recalls resulting from undeclared allergens
So far this year we've seen ice cream, chocolate eggs, cookies, chilli sauce, BBQ pork, and salsa recalled as a result of undeclared allergens.
Undeclared allergens are the second-most common reason for food recalls in Australia (after microbial contamination), accounting for 172 recalls between 1 January 2005 and 31 December 2015, an average of 17 recalls per year (with a top of 27 in 2014).
Undeclared peanuts are the biggest culprit, accounting for 21% of all allergen related recalls over the last 10 years, followed by dairy (17%) and wheat (16%). Processed food was responsible for the most undeclared allergen recalls at 33%, followed by confectionery (18%) and baked goods (15%).
The NSW Food Authority is taking the opportunity provided by Food Allergy Week to urge food businesses to be aware of their responsibility when it comes to managing the growing increase of food allergies.
"Above and beyond caring, it's also the law for those who sell or manufacture food to provide accurate information and labelling about food allergens that may be contained in their product," said Polly Bennett, NSW Food Authority's CEO.