New research on allergen labels on imported foods

Australian-based researchers have recently published a study into prevalence, type, and accuracy of allergen labelling information on 429 imported pre-packaged food products imported from Mainland China sold in Sydney, Australia. Over a quarter of the products were found to pose potential risks for allergic consumers due to inaccuracies.

The food products were collected from five major supermarkets and 10 Asian grocery stores across seven suburban areas in Sydney in 2016–2017. Sixty-six of the products were tested for the presence of peanut, egg, milk, and wheat.

Twenty-two per cent of the products (n=95) featured Precautionary Allergen Labelling (PAL) statements. The wording “may contain traces of” was the most commonly used PAL statement, being present on almost 30% of the products. While most PAL statements (69.5%) were in English, a considerable number of PAL statements were only in Chinese (19%).

Just over half (51.5%) of the products tested by ELISA contained residues of at least one allergen, with quantification results ranging from 0.7 to 297.3 ppm. Thirty per cent of the tested products contained allergen residue levels exceeding the VITAL® Action Level 2 (i.e. high risks of allergens) that recommends use of a PAL, with both milk (45%) and egg (40%) the most commonly identified. Eleven VITAL Action Level 2 products did not contain PAL statements, while six other VITAL Action Level 2 products did not accurately declare the presence of those allergens found in high levels.

Of the products with PAL statements, almost 20 per cent were only labelled in Chinese. It is noteworthy that all except one of these were from independent Asian grocery stores, suggesting that the major supermarket chains are more stringent in allergen labelling.

This was the first study to assess the allergen risks associated with pre-packaged foods imported into Australia from China by using labelling surveys, laboratory testing and the Allergen Bureau’s VITAL (Voluntary Incidental Trace Allergen Labelling) risk assessment procedure on the products.

Reference: Yee et al. 2020. Food Control. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodcont.2020.107749.