Precautionary allergen labels have varying influence on food-choice decisions

precautionary Allergen Labels

Precautionary allergy labels are used by manufacturers to indicate a degree of risk to food-allergic consumers due to certain allergenic foods potentially being present despite not being deliberately added to the food as an ingredient. There are currently no legal guidelines anywhere in the world on how companies should identify products that may have come into contact with food allergens during the manufacturing process. As a result, the wording and use of these precautionary labels is up to individual manufacturers. A new study which looked at how consumers use precautionary allergen labels has found buying practices vary based on the specific type of phrasing used.

Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) and Food Allergy Canada conducted the survey that was completed by over 6,600 food-allergic consumers and caregivers in the U.S. and Canada. It sought information about consumer food purchasing behavior in response to different food allergen labels in the US and Canada. The data collected was analysed to determine associations between respondents’ country of origin, severity of previous reactions and purchasing behaviors in relation to precautionary allergen labels.

The survey results indicate that as many as 40% of allergic consumers or caregivers will purchase foods bearing a precautionary label stating that the product was “manufactured in a facility that also processes allergen”. Interestingly, only 11% of respondents said they purchased foods that bore a “may contain allergen” type precautionary statement.

Almost a third of respondents were unaware that the law requires labeling of major allergens. Nearly half were either unsure or incorrectly believed that the law required foods to bear a precautionary allergen label. Those who had suffered, or cared for someone who had previously suffered a severe allergic reaction were less likely to purchase foods bearing a precautionary allergen label.

These results indicate that improved awareness and guidelines are needed to assist consumers in their purchasing decisions.

The Allergen Bureau’s VITAL® Program is a standardised allergen risk assessment process for food industry. Carrying out a VITAL risk assessment using the VITAL tools – including VITAL Online – assists a food company to thoroughly review the allergen status of all the ingredients and the processing conditions that contribute towards the allergen status of the finished product.

The VITAL Program produces a ‘labelling outcome’ that summarises the food allergens present in a food due to intentional inclusion as part of a recipe and where food allergens, present due to cross contact, should be included (or not) on the label in the form of the precautionary statement ‘May be present: XXX’.

Reference: Marchisotto et al. 2016