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‘Most People’ Find Allergen Labels Unclear as Precautionary Labelling Spreads Confusion

Have you ever read a food label, looking for information on potential allergens and weren’t sure what was and wasn’t in the item? You’re not alone and if you suffer from a life threatening allergy, that confusion could be deadly. A new study showed that less than half people found the messaging clear when it came to allergens on food labels. The importance of accurate and clear food labeling is essential to helping those with allergies navigate their food choices and to staying safe.

‘Most People’ Find Allergen Labels Unclear as Precautionary Labelling Spreads Confusion

Mother and little girl - food allergin label confusion

Katy Askew

As a new study reveals, the majority of people find allergen labels confusing. What's the problem and what should be done?

When researchers from The Netherlands evaluated consumer understanding of allergy information on food labels, less than half of people found the messaging clear.

The study, published in journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy, involved two separate experiments with a total of 96 consumers with food allergies and 105 without.

Investigators first randomly presented 18 different food products with labels suggesting peanut was, may be, or was not an ingredient. They then presented three different formats of information: 'Produced in a Factory' and 'May contain' or 'Traces of'.

Precautionary allergen labels (PALs) were ‘especially problematic’. Also called advisory labelling, this refers to voluntary labelling to indicate allergens could be unintentionally present in a product, and thus pose a risk to susceptible consumers.

When it came to precautionary labels, consumers attributed anything between 2% and 99% risk of a reaction and anything between 1% and 98% comprehensibility assessments.

Allergen Labelling Failing to Keep People Safe

This suggests that precautionary statements such as 'may contain peanut' have little value for consumers and may lead to inappropriate dietary restrictions or risk-taking behaviour, the researchers warned.

"Also, many consumers interpret 'Produced in a factory' to reflect a weaker warning than 'May contain,'"​ said lead author Bregje Holleman, of Utrecht University in The Netherlands. "From a communication perspective, it's logical for consumers to attribute different risk levels to warnings worded differently. But since producers probably mean to communicate the exact same level of risk with each of these different warnings, we advise to use only PAL wording."

The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) highlighted further failings of precautionary labelling. “Precautionary labels are entirely voluntary and policies of different companies vary regarding both the level of risk required to warrant a label, and how to express or phrase that risk on the label. This can result in confusion for consumers, as the exact level of risk to them posed by that product is unclear,”​ the non-profit group stressed.

Tim McLachlan, Chief Executive of allergy advocate group the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, agrees that labelling requirements as they stand are failing to keep consumers safe.

“This study shows once again that clear food labelling is essential in order to keep people with food allergies safe. Unclear labelling causes confusion and misunderstanding, and can lead to people with food allergies unwittingly eating foods to which they are allergic which, for some, can be fatal,”​ he told FoodNavigator.

The Natasha Allergy Research Foundation, which funds medical research and raises awareness of food allergies, has campaigned successfully for change in the UK following the tragic death of teenager Nathasha Ednan-Laperouse.

From 1 October, Natasha’s Law means all pre-packed food made and sold on the same premises — such as sandwiches and salads — will need to list all ingredients. “This is an important step and will give people with food allergies the opportunity and confidence to make safe and informed decisions when buying these foods,”​ McLachlan said.

However, he continued, ‘more work needs to be done’ by food producers to reduce the number of ‘may contain’ allergen warnings, and instead use clearer labelling.

“We would like to see all ingredients listed on all food products so that people with food allergies can make informed and safe choices about what they eat wherever it is bought or served.”

By improving awareness and understanding that food allergies are not a ‘food preference or fad’, the charity hopes further action will be taken by industry and regulators. 

“Allergic disease is one of the major causes of illness in developed countries and its prevalence is increasing steadily. A food allergy is not a food preference or fad but an unpredictable and life-threatening health condition that has devastating effects on people’s lives.”

'Poor understanding of allergen labelling by allergic and non-allergic consumers'​
Clinical & Experimental Allergy​
DOI: 10.1111/cea.13975

Authors: Bregje C. Holleman, Harmieke van Os-Medendorp, Huub van den Bergh, Liselotte M. van Dijk, Yvette F.M. Linders, W. Marty Blom, Kitty C.M. Verhoeckx, Anouska Michelsen-Huisman, Geert F. Houben, André C. Knulst, Leo R. Lentz
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