The food industry needs more work to properly identify and label food allergens; otherwise consumers could fall ill or worse. Though the federal government requires clear labels for eight common allergens, a study found that foods from small companies were more likely to be unlabeled yet contaminated with allergens than brands from larger companies.
The study, published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, discovered that 5.1 percent of brands from small companies were unlabeled yet contained milk, eggs or peanuts, as compared with 0.8 percent of products from large companies.
Of the 401 foods tested, the manufacturers in most need of help to solve this problem are smaller companies that make processed foods like baking mixes, candy and cookies. A year ago, the same journal published a study showing that among more than 20,000 products, confectionery, cookies and baking mixes accounted for 40 percent of the “may contain” warning labels.
The new study also raised concerns about food labels that say “may contain” or “made in a facility that processes...[a specific allergen].” The Food Allergen and Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires that manufacturers clearly label products if they contain eight of the most common allergens—milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
But disclaimer labels like “may contain” allergens are voluntary and not regulated. The study revealed that one retailer wrote its own allergen copy: “Good Manufacturing Practices were used to segregate ingredients in a facility that also processes peanut, tree nuts, milk, shellfish, fish and soy ingredients.” Though the retailer guaranteed a certain level of safety, three of the products were found to contain allergens but were not labeled as such.
The Food Allergy Institute, sponsors of the study, said it is increasingly seeing consumers ignore these warning labels. They are so common that consumers perceive the label is nothing more than a safety net for the manufacturer to prevent litigious outcomes. “Our study underscores the need for allergic consumers to avoid advisory-labeled products, which present a small but real risk, and to have some concern for products without advisory labeling, particularly from small companies, especially within categories of higher-risk products,” the study authors said.