Fuel to further fire the debate, on both sides of the Atlantic, surrounding the labelling of potential food allergens arrived this week with the outcome of a new study in the US. According to new research, 93 per cent of parents of children with a milk allergy cannot correctly identify labels indicating milk on an ingredient statement. In addition, 38 out of 82 parents of children with a peanut allergy failed to recognise labels indicating peanuts, according to the study published in the June issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI). The report, based on a survey of 91 parents of children on restricted diets, reported similar difficulties for those avoiding soy.
"This study confirms what we've known for quite some time - that ingredient statements are written for scientists and regulators, not for the average consumer," said Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). FAAN last year helped to create voluntary labelling guidelines for manufacturers.
According to Dr Robert Wood, associate professor of paediatrics, director of the Paediatric Allergy Clinics, at the John Hopkins University Hospital, and a member of the FAAN medical advisory board, both JACI studies highlight the fact that "issues regarding food manufacturing and labelling continue to be a major source of frustration and, unfortunately, risk for people with food allergies."
"We need manufacturers to list ingredients in simple, consistent language. Currently, the food industry uses dozens of synonyms for allergens, such as 'semolina' to indicate wheat, or 'caseinate' to indicate milk. The use of so many different terms for an allergen increases the likelihood that an ingredient statement will be misinterpreted," Munoz-Furlong continued.
The June JACI also contains the results of an FDA study that found the presence of undeclared allergens in food products is a common cause of food product recalls in the United States. The FDA has increased its allergen inspections, targeting companies that use common allergens such as peanuts, milk, eggs and tree nuts.
"We're pleased to see that the FDA is putting the problem on the front burner and we will continue to work in concert with other such governmental agencies," said Munoz-Furlong.
Food allergy affects an estimated six to seven million Americans, mostly children. Allergic reactions annually account for 30,000 emergency room visits and between 150 to 200 deaths, claims the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.
The subject of food allergen labelling is gaining pace both in the US and Europe. In June 2002 the European Parliament added stricter proposals to a Commission proposal for tighter food allergen labelling.