December 05, 2016
2 min read

Confusing food labels pose risk to consumers with food allergies

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Recent data from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology indicate that almost half of consumers in the U.S. and Canada falsely believe that the law requires the food industry to place precautionary allergen labeling on products.

In addition, 40% of surveyed consumers with food allergic disease purchased items containing allergens due to confusing precautionary labeling.

Ruchi S. Gupta

“An audit performed in 99 U.S. supermarkets found that more than 50% of chocolate candy or cookies had precautionary allergen labeling, with more than 25 types of wordings,” Ruchi S. Gupta, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and researcher at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and associate professor of pediatrics and medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and colleagues wrote. “Such wording differences have the potential to cause confusion and anxiety in food-allergic individuals and their caretakers. Despite the ubiquity of precautionary allergen labeling, its effects on consumer purchasing practices are poorly understood.”

To determine the levels of consumer understanding among food allergic adults and purchasing habits in parents of food allergic children, Gupta and colleagues surveyed 6,684 consumers in the United States (n = 5,507) and Canada (n = 1,177). The survey examined the influence food labeling had on consumer purchasing habits, knowledge of thresholds for precautionary allergen labeling and opinions. The researchers developed a composite knowledge score based on questions correctly answered on the survey.

Among those surveyed, between 10.1% and 41.1% of consumers in the United States reported purchasing foods that used precautionary allergen labeling. Further, between 15.3% and 36.5% of respondents from Canada also reported using precautionary allergen labeling to buy products. Most respondents (74.8%) reported they were most likely to purchase foods labeled “good manufacturing practices used to segregate ingredients in a facility that also processes allergen.” Fewer (11%) respondents bought products with “may contain” labels.

In addition, 29% of respondents were unaware that “priority food allergens” were required by law to be reported on labels. The potential for cross-contamination on shared equipment has led many manufacturers to include precautionary allergen labeling, with language such as “may contain” or “manufactured in a facility,” but these are not legally required. Researchers found that 46% of those surveyed believed these precautions were required by law and 37% believed they were present due to the amount of allergen processed in the product.

“Our findings underscore the challenges people with food allergies face in deciding if a food product is safe to eat,” Gupta said in a press release. “Currently, precautionary allergen labeling is voluntary and the statements used lack consistency, making it more confusing for consumers. They also do not reflect how much allergen is in the product, which is something consumers need to know to assess food allergy risk.” – by Kate Sherrer

Disclosure: Gupta reports research support from FARE, the National Institutes of Health and Mylan; received consultant fees from Before Brands and DBV Technologies; received lecture fees from Grand Rounds; and received royalties for a book. Please see the full study for a list of all other researchers’ relevant financial disclosures.