Products carrying “may contain” allergen labels often contaminated, finds study

Consumers allergic to milk, egg or peanut should not ignore “may contain” labels – as they are often contaminated with the stated allergen – much more so than those that make no claim, new research suggests.

Although food manufacturers are required to list the known presence of food allergens on product labels, they are under no obligation to mention that a food may have become unintentionally contaminated. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, about four percent of US adults have a food allergy, with reactions ranging from tingling of the mouth and lips, to anaphylaxis and even death. The prevalence of allergy and difficulties for allergy sufferers in choosing appropriate products led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to introduce the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) in 2006.

The Act mandates the disclosure of eight food allergens in the ingredient statement: Milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nuts, fish, and crustacean shellfish – but it does not regulate advisory labels.

This latest research, published as a letter to the editor in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, is intended to provide consumers, industry, regulators and doctors with a better idea of how frequently foods that carry warning labels are contaminated with the stated allergen.

Citing previous research, the authors said that consumers are increasingly ignoring “may contain” or “made in a facility that processes…” warning labels, even though they signify “a small but real” risk.

The researchers examined 57 products with advisory labels for egg, 59 for milk, and 112 for peanut. The numbers of products with no allergen labels at all were 117, 134, and 120 for egg, milk, and peanut, respectively. They tested foods in portions equal to the recommended serving size, and a lower limit for detection was set at 2.5 parts per million.

They found detectable allergens in 5.3 percent of advisory-labeled products and 1.9 percent of similar products without advisory statements. Among foods from small companies, 5.1 percent were contaminated compared with 0.75 percent from large companies, the researchers wrote.

Products from small companies were found to be more likely to contain milk – but not egg or peanut – than products from large companies.

“These findings indicate a real risk for consumers and highlight the need to increase awareness among manufacturers, particularly from smaller companies,” the study’s authors wrote.

They also called for more research into the level of contamination that would result in allergic reaction, as well as changes in manufacturing procedures, and more widespread testing to allow production of safer products that would not require advisory labels.

The full article is available online here.

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