By Allergen Bureau

Labelling Errors Put EU’s Food Allergic Children at High Risk

In the European Union, the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) underpins the response and recall process when risks to public health are detected in the food chain. Analysis of the RASFF food allergen data has shown surprising levels of labelling errors that are likely to have the greatest impact on children with food allergies.

Researchers extracted food allergen notifications for the period between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2021 from RASFF via the online open database. A total of 844 food-allergen-related notifications were made during this period, with 2019 having the greatest number of recalls (n=241). The main countries that issued notifications about allergen hazards were Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom (noting that 2021 data did not include the United Kingdom since it was no longer part of the EU as of January 2021).

Milk (20.5%), gluten (14.8%), and nuts (10.9%) were found to be the allergens most often present without a correct label declaration. These are known to be the most common and serious childhood food allergies. Of the 27 food categories in the RASFF, undeclared allergens were mainly present in cereal and bakery products, prepared dishes and snacks, and cacao and confectionery products, all of which are frequently consumed by children.

The study authors were surprised by the large quantity (7.6%) of undeclared allergens in ‘free from’ products, especially where the allergen claimed to be absent was in fact present.

Of the allergens that frequently affect children, almost all were not declared due to labelling errors rather than the presence of the allergen or its traces due to cross-contact. For example, some products that included information in several languages did not declare the presence of allergens in one language but did in another.

Knowledge of the degree to which food labels can be inaccurate should take a relevant role in a patient education. It is also necessary to raise awareness among food manufacturers and safety authorities to bring about improvement in labelling practices.

Reference: Martínez-Pined et al. 2022. Nutrients. DOI: 10.3390/nu14081571. Available with Open Access.