Weekly Comment

Allergens: no margin for error

It would be a mistake for governments and industry to misinterpret
the recent progress in food allergen labelling as a final solution:
there is much that remains to be done, for the well-being of both
consumers and manufacturers.

Perhaps the clearest indication that the situation needs attention is the almost weekly list of product recalls recorded globally as a result of undeclared ingredients or product contamination. And it's not just the smaller food companies – with arguably less streamlined manufacturing procedures in place – that continue to slip up. In the past few weeks alone, big players such as Cadbury's in the UK and Whole Foods Market in the US have recalled products after incorrect labelling. Every new recall erodes consumers' confidence and manufacturers' bottom lines just that little bit more. But this isn't simply another marketing strategy to capture consumer loyalty and boost sales. Nor is it in the same league of debate as misleading people with unfounded health claims or promoting products that make us fat. Although both crucial issues in their own right, allergens sit one notch up on the priority ladder – because when we're talking about the risk of people dying after a single nutritional slip, or even suffering a seriously compromised quality of life, there really is no room for debate. Of course, the food industry internationally has made huge progress this decade, and consumers suffering from allergies can now visit supermarkets with a wider choice and less risk than ever before. New labelling regulations implemented last year in the US require the labelling in simple language of eight major food allergens - milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy. Europe has gone one step further, essentially abolishing an outrageous '25%' rule – which meant that a compound ingredient comprising less than 25 per cent of the finished product (such as salami on pizza) did not have to have its individual ingredients listed. But since 2005, products for sale in Europe must label 12 allergens, with an additional two shortly due to be added to the list. Australia and New Zealand also implemented new allergen labelling rules a few years earlier. But one of the side effects of more stringent legislation has been a surge in the dubious 'May Contain' labelling. These warnings started with the very best intentions from the industry: a greater understanding of allergens led to a heightened sense of responsibility to indicate any measure of doubt. But this is a point where consumers and manufacturers simply don't understand each other. Manufacturers feel they are being responsible, while consumers feel they are opting for a legal cop-out. As a result, the labels are mistrusted and often ignored. Although most consumers just don't understand what goes on in food production plants, and the contamination risk involved when many products are manufactured on the same premises, their critique may occasionally hold true. The simple fact is that the proliferation of 'May Contain' labels must absolutely not take the place of good manufacturing practices. The UK has anticipated the issue with the imminent introduction of a voluntary allergen certification programme. Funded by the nation's regulatory body – the Food Standards Agency – and co-ordinated by an allergy support charity – The Anaphylaxis Campaign – the new guidelines are due to be launched later this year. They involve comprehensive guidance for all systems and procedures that need to be implemented in manufacturing plants in order to minimise the risk of contamination or mislabelling. The result: safer products for consumers and less risk for manufacturers. Such guidelines are certainly an important next step and should act as an example to other regulatory bodies. So, far from feeling it has done enough, the industry needs to stay alert and responsive in order to best protect consumers and anticipate the next transition to providing safer products. Because although the US Food and Drug Administration claims its new labelling regulations address 90 per cent of documented food allergies, that still leaves 10 per cent of uncertainty. Food-induced allergies, quality of life or potentially even death should have nothing to do with numbers. We've come a long way in a short time – the first scientific papers linking allergies to death were only published in the 1980's. The food industry will again need to adjust its practices as more allergens come to be scientifically recognised. The sooner this is done, the softer the strike, and the happier the consumer. Lorraine Heller is editor of FoodNavigator-USA and is a specialist writer on food industry issues. With an international focus, she has lived and worked in the UK, Cyprus and France. If you would like to comment on this article, please e-mail lorraine.heller'at'decisionnews.com

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