By Allergen Bureau

Quantifying the confusion caused by precautionary allergen labelling

How well allergen labelling information is understood can impact life-or-death decisions. Experts at the Netherlands’ University of Utrecht and TNO have explored exactly how those with and without food allergy interpret allergen labelling information.

Two hundred consumers were involved in two separate experiments, with roughly a 50:50 split between those with self-reported food allergies and those without. Investigators first randomly presented 18 different food products with labels suggesting peanut was present, may be present, or was not an ingredient. Then they presented three different formats of Precautionary Allergen Labelling (PAL): ‘Produced in a Factory’ and ‘May contain’ or ‘Traces of’.

In each experiment, consumers with and without self-reported food allergy were asked to estimate the risk of allergic reaction and to rate the comprehensibility of the allergen information. In the second experiment, consumers were asked which form of PAL they preferred.

In assessing the PAL options, consumers attributed between 2 and 99 per cent risk of a reaction and between 1 and 98 per cent comprehensibility. Many interpreted ‘Produced in a factory’ to reflect less risk than ‘May contain’ – however this may not match the manufacturer’s intended risk messaging.

Interestingly, in products bearing a PAL, risk of an allergic reaction was judged as higher by those without food allergies than those with food allergies (82 vs. 58 per cent). Furthermore, those with higher health literacy appeared to attach more meaning to each different PAL variation. These interpretations were not necessarily consistent with the intended risk messaging.

The findings suggest that precautionary statements such as ‘may contain peanut’ have little value for consumers and may lead to unnecessary avoidance or risk-taking behaviour.

The authors concluded that both allergic and non-allergic consumers find allergen information difficult to interpret on packaged foods and misunderstand PAL, and called for clearer allergy information guidelines. They recommend the use of only one form of PAL wording across the sector.

Utrecht University has released full details of this work, which is Part Two of a three-part series. The final study will include interviews with food producers and retailers regarding the rationale for including certain allergen information on food products.

Journal Reference: Holleman, B. et al. 2021 Clinical & Experimental Allergy DOI: 10.1111/cea.13975.