These days, a lot of food items you can buy in stores carry a series of warnings that they might accidentally contain some ingredients that could seriously harm people with food allergies.
There are signs that these labels are causing confusion with people that should listen to them. New testing proves that there is a genuine (although admittedly small) risk that foods with these warnings do have risk to your health.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) intends to seek advice from food manufacturers as well as shoppers before deciding whether to take action. Currently the labels are only voluntary; the manufacturers are not required by law to display them.
Several major food manufacturers are already worried that the labels are losing credibility and are largely ignored by consumers. The Grocery Manufacturer / Food Product Association have already put plans in place to update their guidelines and when foods should have warnings attached.
A recent survey by the University of Nebraska suggests that people see the labels on so many products that they are now automatically ignoring them.
The problem is, for people with serious allergies, that if you continually consume these products eventually you are going to eat one that could do you serious harm. This is especially true for some of the more serious allergies – for example a peanut allergy can easily kill a grown adult.
Over 13 million Americans have a food allergy. Serious cases of food allergies cause more than 29,000 hospital emergency room visits every single year, with an average of 175 fatalities.
Labels on food products help people avoid ingredients that could harm them. A new law which came into effect in 2006 requires foods that intentionally consist of highly allergenic ingredients must disclose this in easy to understand language. Examples of this group of food include eggs, types of shellfish and peanuts.
However, the accidental allergy warning labels are a different matter: They are aimed at foods that should not contain that type of allergy causing food but might have become tainted with it. This can be caused by food being produced in the same factory, or on the same production equipment as other foods which contain allergy-causing ingredients.
In a 2006 report to Congress, the Food and Drug Administration said that 25% of factories in a recent inspection had the potential for this contamination to take place.
Right now the warnings are voluntary, which leads to various companies using different styles of labeling. Often they use vague wording.
An influential USA consumer group, The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, have surveyed over 700 parents of children with food allergies. Last year, 75% said they would not purchase any food with an accidental-allergy warning label; this is down from 85% when the same survey was done only 3 years ago.
They found that the exact wording of a warning label would decide if most parents would adhere to it. “Warning – May Contain Nuts” would be listened to by 90% of parents, but “Packed in a factory that processes peanuts” would only be listened to by 61%.
That also backs up a Food and Drug Administration experiment that discovered that the exact wording on the labels matters in convincing consumers with allergies to take the warning seriously.
Some people question whether the warnings are real. The University of Nebraska tested 179 food items that displayed various warnings saying that the product may contain peanuts. They found 12 of these products did actually contain peanuts – enough to seriously harm a small child with an allergy.
Also, the survey pointed out that they only tested two batches of each product. If they had tested more, then the number of tainted products would inevitably increase – for example if they tested a batch just after a peanut-containing product had been produced and the machine cleaned.
Some parents have complained that some food types that have never before had warnings on them are now suddenly carrying them. This included well-known brands of canned fruit with peanut warnings, which further adds to the confusion and the chance of a warning being ignored.
The food industry is “infested by an increase of use of “may contain” labels”, according to the Policy Chief for a major food manufacturer. They went on to comment “These labels should not be just slapped on products without thinking of the consequences.”