Food Allergen Testing - Facts vs. Fiction (2)

Food allergens not only represent a serious health risk for individuals with allergies, they are also a topic of discussion when it comes to their analysis and proper labeling.

Food allergen labeling intends to make the lives of people with allergies easier and safer, but it often causes confusion in the food industry as most laws fail to state the levels above which an allergen must be labeled. To avoid the problem of undeclared allergens in a food preparation, producers often use “may contain…” statements. However, there are more perspectives to consider.
This second part of our series sheds some light on allergen testing and labeling misconceptions.

“May contain…” statements can solve all our problems

Most labeling regulations only apply to allergenic ingredients that are deliberately added to the product. However, increasing concern from consumers about unintended allergen contamination has caused uncertainty among food producers as to whether they need to label potential allergens if their presence cannot be excluded. 
Consequently, food manufacturers often display precautionary (also called advisory) allergen statements, such as “may contain …” on packaging. It is of upmost importance to remember that such statements are only voluntary. They make the consumer aware of the possibility that the product may contain a certain allergen, and they prevent the producer having to make potential allergen-related product recalls.

Are we on the safe side if we use “may contain…”?

In some cases, precautionary allergen labeling makes sense. For example, if the producer regularly tests for a certain allergen and although most samples show a negative test result, low levels of the allergen can be detected in a few batches, a precautionary statement would be displayed.
Depending on the particular country’s national law, the statement ‘may contain’ is unlikely to meet legal requirements, if the relevant substance is present as an ingredient of a compound ingredient, a component of a food additive, or a processing aid.
In addition, advisory statements never substitute for good manufacturing practice, such as allergen identification and control, cleaning of shared equipment, and segregation during processing. If there is evidence of allergen presence, or even only a possibility for the presence of the allergen to be in the final product, the “may contain…” statement is not appropriate.

Considering the consumer’s perspective

The overuse of precautionary labels can lead to risk-taking behavior in consumers. With a significantly reduced variety of food products that are suitable for allergic individuals on offer, some may risk consuming products which display advisory statements. However, studies showed that up to 9% of products with advisory labels in fact contained detectable levels of allergens. Therefore, there is a real risk of allergen contamination in products that only display a precautionary statement. As there are varying reasons why manufacturers include such statements, consumers will find it increasingly difficult to interpret them. 

The consequence…

Consumers with allergies should avoid products with precautionary labels, as the risk is not assessable. In return, food producers should avoid using a “may contain…” statement without reasonable suspicion. Adding such a statement is not always a safe and simple way for protecting the company legally. Careful usage of these statements will ensure a broader selection of products is available to affected people.

In our next issue of “Food Allergen Testing – Facts vs. Fiction” we will discuss the common misconception that polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a more reliable method than rapid tests. Stay tuned.