Food allergy labelling may cause consumer complacency in Australia

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 1st July 2013

Australian parents of children with food allergies appear to be complacent about warnings on product labels, regardless of their child’s history of anaphylaxis, according to research published in the latest edition of the Medical Journal of Australia.

The study, led by Professor Katie Allen, Director of Population Health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), administered a questionnaire to the parents of 246 children who have been diagnosed with food allergy and who attended the Department of Allergy at the Royal Children’s Hospital between August and October in 2011.

Parents confused by allergy labelling

Between 78 per cent and 84 per cent of parents of children with a history of anaphylaxis thought precautionary labels were “not useful and that they did not know whether the food was safe to eat irrespective of the wording of the labels”.

The authors reported that parents of 54 children with a history of anaphylaxis (48 per cent), “felt that the ingredient list information on food labels was easy to understand or use” but that only six (5.4 per cent) felt that they could “completely trust” food labels.

There were no differences between parents of children with and without a past history of anaphylaxis in their reading of food labels, although parents of children with a history of anaphylaxis were more likely to remove from the house any food products containing the allergen, the authors wrote.

“Precautionary labelling for food allergens such as “may contain traces of”, are now present on more than half of all packaged processed foods in Australian supermarkets,” the study’s authors said.

“[Other research shows] that this high prevalence of precautionary labelling as well as the understanding by the allergic consumer that these statements are voluntary, may have led to consumers not heeding precautionary statements. This might expose food-allergic consumers to the risk of contamination,” the authors said.

In 2007, a new precautionary statement – “may be present” – was introduced to the food labelling regimen, but to date only a minority of foods use it.

The authors said they aimed to explore the behaviour and perceptions of parents of food-allergic children with and without a history of anaphylaxis in relation to precautionary labelling of foods.

“The proportion of participants who would avoid a particular food with a precautionary label varied depending on the wording of the precautionary label”, they said. Sixty-five per cent ignored the statement “made in the same factory” compared with 22% who ignored “may be present”.

Excessively precautionary labels may be counter-productive

The attitudes of parents of food-allergic children towards precautionary labelling appear to be complacent whether or not children had a past history of anaphylaxis”, the authors said. “Policies that promote the use of fewer precautionary statements or more effective labelling strategies may lead to less consumer complacency.”

Calls for allergy labelling to be simplified and “consistent”

Professor Allen has previously called for the precautionary food labelling system to be changed, after a 2012 report from the MCRI found that uptake of a consistent labelling system had been slow.

“We would like to see a more rational use of precautionary labelling based on good manufacturing processing like the Voluntary Incidental Trace Allergen Labelling (VITAL) 2.0 system,” Professor Allen said.

The VITAL system was developed to make a single standardised precautionary statement available to assist food producers in presenting allergen advice consistently for allergic consumers. Despite the VITAL system being first introduced in 2005, the 2012 MCRI research found that there was a low take up of the system, with only 12.7 per cent of foods assessed having been through the VITAL process.