Detection of allergens shows that this trend could be dangerous.
A growing number of the 12 million Americans with food allergy are ignoring widespread food-label warnings about the possible unintentional presence of allergens, putting them at increased risk for a potentially serious reaction, a new study suggests.The label warnings, known as “advisory labelling,” are intended to inform consumers that the products could unintentionally include an allergen (e.g., peanuts), and include such statements as “may contain [allergen],” “manufactured on shared equipment with [allergen],” and “manufactured in the same facility with [allergen].”Advisory labelling, which has become increasingly common, is voluntary rather than mandatory, and is not regulated. People with food allergy depend upon food labels to determine food safety, as even a small amount of an allergen could cause a serious allergic reaction.The new study, reported in the July issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, attempted to determine whether food-allergic consumers heed advisory labels, and whether products with such labelling contain detectable amounts of allergen. The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), and the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.Two separate groups of attendees at FAAN seminars for parents of children with food allergy were surveyed: one group in 2003 (625 parents), and the other in 2006 (645 parents). Parents were asked whether they heeded advisory labelling on products containing food allergens.The results of the survey showed a disturbing trend: 85 percent of the parents surveyed in 2003 heeded the advisory warnings, while in 2006 the rate dropped to 75 percent. In addition, parents ignored the advisories to differing degrees, depending on the wording. For example, 88 percent heeded items labelled “May contain [allergen],” compared with only 65 percent who would not use products labelled “Made in a facility that uses [allergen].”Yet when food products bearing advisory statements for the presence of peanut, a common allergen, were analysed, it was found that the wording used to warn consumers did not correlate with frequency or amount of peanut detected. In fact, peanut was found in more products and at higher levels in items with “shared facilities” in the advisory label than with other wording.Overall, 7 percent (13 of 179 products tested) had detectable levels of peanut – in amounts that, in some cases, could cause allergic reactions.”We believe that allergic consumers are increasingly ignoring the advisory labelling because the warnings are now used so frequently that consumers assume they are not serious,” said study coauthor Scott Sicherer, M.D., of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute. “Our study shows that there truly is a risk, that the particular words used in warnings do not reflect the degree of danger, and not heeding those warnings is tantamount to playing a hazardous game of allergy roulette with food.””Advisory labels are well-meaning, but their increasing use and the wide range of terminology are confusing and often misleading for consumers,” said FAAN CEO and founder Anne Munoz-Furlong. “Industry, government regulators, and food-allergic consumers must partner to determine the best course of action to ensure that food is free from unintended allergens and to improve advisory label use.”(Source : Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology : The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network : July 2007)